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PG&E outages: what you need to know

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If you live in Northern California, you’ve likely been impacted by electric power shut-offs or outages from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) over the last couple of years. As wildfires become increasingly prevalent in the state, and as the link between utility infrastructure–like transmission lines–and wildfires becomes increasingly clear, that trend is set to continue for the foreseeable future. With that in mind, we wanted to take a step back and look at PG&E outages: why are they occurring, what does the past timeline of outages look like, and what can you expect moving forward. 

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But first! A primer on “reliability”

Overall, the electricity grid in the US is very reliable: we’ve come to expect our electricity to be on all the time, in part because the grid works so well. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), over the last 7 years, the average electricity user in the US only was without electricity for 2 hours or less each year, or 99.97% reliability. Pretty darn good! 

(Editor’s note: there are a few key metrics that utilities and regulators use to track reliability, most notably SAIDI, SAIFI and CAIDI to measure duration, frequency and customer impact of outages. EIA publishes these data by utility in their annual 861 datasets if you want to get really into the weeds.)

What’s missing from the above data point, though, are outages related to major events such as severe storms and wildfires, which have increased in frequency and severity in recent years, causing more frequent and longer “power interruptions”, to use industry parlance. In fact, in 2017, the average electricity consumer in the US had nearly 8 hours of outages when accounting for major events, four times the length of outages without major events. 

This is particularly true in California, where wildfire-related outages are increasing in regularity and duration. 

A shift in PG&E outages: from caused by wildfires to trying to avoid them

PG&E has a fraught relationship with wildfires. 

Wildfires can be sparked by and exacerbated by a number of different factors, from drought to lightning. Increasingly, though, the connection between electric utility equipment and wildfires has become abundantly clear. Electricity is transmitted from central power plants to homes and businesses across an interconnected network of transmission and distribution lines. These poles and wires often cut through wooded areas to get electricity from far flung generators to the people who need the electricity. Utilities try to limit how wide of a corridor they clear cut through wooded areas to mitigate their environmental impact and to comply with federal and state regulation. 

This has one major implication, though: high powered electricity is flowing through “live” transmission lines that can become dangerously close to drought-primed wood if the utility doesn’t proactively manage vegetation (i.e., trim trees) in the transmission corridor or if winds pick up to the point that they can blow the transmission lines into even closer proximity to the trees.

In fact, this has happened quite frequently for PG&E: according to a report from the Wall Street Journal, PG&E equipment was responsible for more than 1,500 fires between 2014 and 2017 alone. Each of these wildfires had the potential to cause electricity, but, more importantly, significant destruction. Sadly, this continued to be the case in 2018 and 2019, with the utility pleading guilty to starting the deadly Camp Fire. 

With that recent history in mind, PG&E and other utilities in California, have begun to manage the threat of wildfires by proactively shutting off electricity to select utility customers in an attempt to “de-energize” transmission lines that are most likely to be wind-blown into close proximity to trees. These proactive outages, known as Public Safety Power Shutoffs, or PSPS events, can shut off power to hundreds of thousands customers for days at a time, and look set to continue for the foreseeable future. 

Timeline of PG&E outages

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the regulator of electric utilities in California, found in 2012 that utilities could proactively “shut off electric power in order to protect public safety.” While PG&E and San Diego Gas & Electric used PSPS events in 2018, the practice truly began in earnest during the fire season of 2019

According to post event reports to the CPUC, PG&E called major “pro-active de-energization” (their term, not mine) events on the following dates: 

So far in 2020, PG&E has called the following PSPS events: 

What to expect moving forward

Don’t expect PG&E outages to end anytime soon: in 2019, the CEO of PG&E told regulators that he anticipated that PSPS events would continue for the next decade. But thankfully, there’s an easy way to mitigate the impact of outages for your home: when you install a solar + energy storage system at your home or business, you can keep the lights on even when the grid is shut down for a PSPS event. Check out our recent video explaining how this works.

To get started with your own solar plus storage project, sign up for a free account on EnergySage today to get custom solar and storage quotes from installers in your area. 

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About Spencer Fields

Spencer is the Content & Research Manager at EnergySage, where he writes about all things energy. Prior to joining EnergySage, he spent five years at Synapse Energy Economics, providing environmental, economic and policy analysis for public interest groups. Spencer has degrees in Environmental Studies and Hispanic Studies from Brown University, meaning when he's not in the office you can find him outside or traveling somewhere to work on his Spanish.

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