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How are you coping with power outages?

Uploaded: Jan 15, 2023

Good grief. Is everyone staying dry? Staying sane? I actually made mozzarella yesterday, for the first time, in my quest for indoor activities. It was surprisingly quick, and I think it came out pretty good.

Homemade mozzarella cheese

But this blog is not about cheese. (1) It is about power outages, and specifically the impact of those outages on all of us. Palo Alto has been doing a much better job of reporting these outages -- yay for transparency -- and it seems they have been working hard to resolve issues as they come up. But this period of intense rain has inevitably resulted in some outages that have affected many of you, and I’d love to hear what impact those outages have had.

I ask this because one of the concerns people have with building electrification is that power outages might be more harmful. It’s one thing for your lights to go out but quite another for your heat to go out, especially if you live in a cold place. So for those of you who have done some electrification, and even for those of you who haven’t, what impacts do you feel most from any power outages you’ve experienced?

I’ll chime in since I’ve had two outages recently, a pretty short one during these storms and a longer one last month when the utility was replacing some poles in the area. My house is all-electric except for the stove, so it’s at least one data point.

The short outage happened overnight. It lasted 1-2 hours. I noticed only because the microwave was blinking when I got up. Often with these short outages, it’s not the actual outage that is a pain so much as is resetting everything afterwards. It’s especially bad when, say, a computer refuses to restart. But mostly it’s just a bunch of fiddly things, such as:

Appliance clocks need to be reset

Irrigation boxes too

A timer on a recirc pump has to be adjusted

As do timers on some light switches

Yes, I have an old clock radio that I still use!

For some reason, these lights always go on after a blackout and have to be turned off.

Some of these clocks have backup batteries, but those go dead and I fail to replace them or, sometimes, I can’t figure out how.

In general, though, these short outages aren’t a big deal. Even if it happens during the day, I’ll notice that the lights don’t work but I can still get work done. (2) Yes, I have to be careful opening the refrigerator and freezer. And if I were cooking something and the oven stopped working, it would be a real pain, but I don’t recall that ever happening. The electric space heating and water heating never cross my mind. The hot water keeps working (the tank stays hot), the house stays comfortable (it’s pretty well insulated). The EV battery stays at whatever it was, which is normally around three-quarters full.

So, for our household at least, an occasional multi-hour outage is not a big deal, and the worst part is resetting everything when it’s over.

What about longer outages, you may be wondering? They are not common, but I had a nine-hour outage a month ago when they were replacing some phone poles in the neighborhood. It was a cool day (high of 55), and the temperature inside was about 68 when the electricity went out around 9am. When it came back on around 5pm, the temperature was around 65. That’s a little cool but not awful. I was fine with an extra layer and/or a blanket. And the hot water still stayed mostly hot. The internet stopped working after 5-6 hours (the battery in the UPS ran out), but otherwise it was just a regular outage, not too exciting.

When it was over, the heater ran for about 3 hours longer than it normally would that evening, and the water heater maybe 1-2 hours more. It helped that the outage was planned -- I could move my car out of the garage before the power went out, so I didn’t have to manually open it. Plus I knew the outage would be over around 5pm, so I didn’t have to worry about dinner or about going 24 hours without heat. But the “all-electric” aspect of the outage? It pretty much made no difference.

Most modern gas furnaces and boilers need some electricity to operate, so I’m wondering if any of you had a cool house or water during an outage over this past week or two. If so, I’d love to hear in the comments what your experience was and if you took anything away from it. I would have second and third thoughts electrifying a house in a cold and outage-prone place like Tahoe, or in a PSPS area where multi-day outages are not uncommon. But here? I don’t see the issue. But I’d love to hear what you all have to say after the past few weeks.

Notes and References
0. One thing I love about all this rain is how good it is for the plants around here, especially the trees but also the shrubs. Here is a picture of a camellia that I love that is just outside my kitchen window.

The rain is great for our plants

1. Ironically, even though this blog is not about cheese, many aggregators and search engines will pick up that first picture and highlight it along with the blog. So we’ll have a blog about power outages with an accompanying picture of homemade cheese. And people wonder why journalism is struggling…

2. If you don’t have a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) for your router, I’d recommend it. It’s basically a big battery that you plug in to the outlet where your modem and router are plugged in, then you plug those into the battery instead. When the power goes out, it just keeps powering your modem and router.

An uninterruptible power supply powers a modem and router when the power goes out, and can charge other things that are plugged into it.

Current Climate Data (December 2022)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard

The last nine years have been the warmest on record.

Source: NASA’s Earth Observatory

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I hope that your contributions will be an important part of this blog. To keep the discussion productive, please adhere to these guidelines or your comment may be edited or removed.
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Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 15, 2023 at 8:08 am

Bystander is a registered user.

We have a UPS and the problem with overnight outages is that it starts beeping in the middle of the night, waking everyone off, and has to be dealt with in the dark to stop making the bleeping noise. Great to come home and know the power is off, not when awoken at 2 am.

Our internet goes when the power goes also, so trying to look online for what is happening with a weak phone signal is not fun.

I am told that PG&E will send text alerts about how long power is out, Palo Alto Utilities does not do that.

The media says that power outages means we are in the dark. I can deal with the dark, I can deal with losing heat, but I can't deal with losing food that is partly cooked in the oven and is ruined when the power goes half way through the baking process, even a short power outage ruins an oven baking bread! Can't imagine what it would do to a business that bakes.

When people work from home and the power goes out, quite a lot just decide to transfer to their offices where there is power. I often see an exodus of cars in my neighborhood as soon as the power goes out.

Can't imagine what happens in schools. Has the power gone out in our local schools? That would be quite a hindrance as so many classrooms have no windows for natural light. Wow, teachers having to teach without electronics, that might be something interesting for the kids to learn!

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Jan 15, 2023 at 8:32 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

I agree that short outages aren't a big deal. If you make them a big deal, you're a whiner. You never learned to take things in stride, and it will hinder you for life. We don't live in a perfect world. Life goes on.

We had a long outage last Sunday and it still wasn't a big deal. Sure, we through a few things out. But it beats mud slides and losing our home or our life which I'm seeing on the news recently.

Posted by KOhlson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jan 15, 2023 at 12:20 pm

KOhlson is a registered user.

I've lived in PA for a long time, in 3 different locations. If my memory serves, power outages were minimal until the 2000s, when they seemed more frequent. Working at home, I bought several UPS units. When they kicked in they beeped, like Bystander said, and that was annoying. Power seems more reliable in the last 10+ years, and I've recycled by UPS units.
When the power goes out it can take awhile to make some smart home things work. Most work fine, some need to be reset. Speaking of smart home capabilities, you may want to consider updating your irrigation controller (Santa Clara County will pay for it in many cities) and your light switch timer. The latter can easily be set to turn on or off at sunrise/sunset, which varies by hours over the course of the year.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Jan 15, 2023 at 1:02 pm

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

As someone who has had the misfortune of suffering through more than one multi day power outage in the past few years, I am deeply resentful of those who are forcing electrical appliances over gas and banning generators. Such mandates are deeply misguided and harmful.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Jan 16, 2023 at 11:50 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Joseph, I agree that multi-day outages are problematic. Are you in a PSPS area? Did you buy a generator? If not, what part of electrification are you most concerned about wrt outages? (Isn't your heat already going out?) I'd love to understand this better.

BTW, my understanding re generators is they are still allowing propane and diesel, just not gas. I don't know much about it though. I do know there are home battery incentives for people in PSPS areas, even free ones.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Jan 17, 2023 at 12:16 pm

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

Yes, I am in a PSPS area. I did buy a generator, but my understanding is that they are now or will be illegal to buy going forward in California. I don't qualify for PG&E's battery incentives.

I used to have a gas water heater that would work during a power outage. California made those water heaters illegal to fight air pollution, so no longer.

The furnace does indeed not work during a power outage. However I was provided with some comfort from my gas stove which continued to function if lit by a match.

My primary concerns with forced electrification are the following:
- I don't believe it's appropriate for city council members or state legislatures to dictate what power source I will use for appliances in my home. It's an unjustified infringement on personal freedoms.
- The electrical grid is barely hanging on as it is. I have no confidence that any realistic plans are in place to handle massive increases in utilization.
- I'm not convinced that using natural gas to heat water or for cooking is a significant environmental threat compared to electrical generation and transmission to generate the same heat. I suspect that a lot of expensive changeovers are being done with next to no impact on the climate. Wasting resources like that is bad for society.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Jan 17, 2023 at 7:29 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Joseph, thanks for the reply, and I hear your frustration. FWIW, I really hope that our utilities get moving with wildfire hardening so the PSPS shutoffs are much less frequent and less widespread by 2028 and 2030 (see footnote below). That has to happen imo.

But your point as you say isn't so much related to that. Rather, it's that you want the freedom to choose what fuel powers your appliances (and cars?). You don't think we'll have enough power to electrify. And you don't think electrification helps, since we use gas to produce electricity. So you don't want to transition and, even if you did, you think CA is being reckless by transitioning aggressively.

Presumably instead you believe we should focus on adapting to large levels of sea level rise, heat waves, etc, and helping other people (and animals?) do the same (?)

I've written about electricity supply and heating emissions before, so I won't redo that here. There is no doubt that it is difficult to develop and bring online such large amounts of clean energy at the times when we need it. But imo CA must do this transition, and we are doing a really remarkable job so far, though it is not and won't be without hiccups. For us to go on polluting the world the way we have been doing, when other paths are available, and to justify this by claiming that our "freedom of appliance" is paramount, is not something I support.

Again, appreciate your weighing in, and as you say it is really important that we continue to push on our electricity -- supply, emissions, prices, and wildfire hardening.

Footnote: Just to clarify, 2028 is when gas-powered generators can no longer be sold in CA. They are still for sale in CA today, and propane and diesel generators will be available for sale after 2028. 2030 is when CARB (and just now our own Bay Area Air Quality Management District) proposes that gas-powered water heaters and furnaces can no longer be sold. That is, I think, a much bigger deal. These one-for-one replacements are not uniformly easy. Hopefully that will improve by 2030. Palo Alto's concierge HPWH initiative is really important to get a sense of this.

Posted by MichaelB, a resident of Pleasanton Meadows,
on Jan 18, 2023 at 8:07 am

MichaelB is a registered user.

"For us to go on polluting the world the way we have been doing, when other paths are available, and to justify this by claiming that our "freedom of appliance" is paramount, is not something I support."

Other paths are available? What are they? No more diesel and jet fuel for all of the aircraft, farm equipment, locomotives, trucks, and ships currently in service? Energy is required to keep the nation/economy running and renewables can't provide it. This is not just about appliances. Cut off current energy sources and you get higher prices/supply disruptions/product shortages that affect everyone.

Want to generate resentment/discredit the environmental movement? Tell people in a free society (we still have one) that it's "tough luck" or "deal with it" that you can't afford to: heat your home, retrofit it, replace your car, buy groceries, drive to work, deliver your products, provide services to your customers,hire employees,retire,etc. - because we (who are not affected by it) know what is best and are "saving the planet".

Alternative energy sources and transitions need to have a market based, gradual approach. Not a government mandated (rationing) one.

Posted by Paul Clark, a resident of Danville,
on Jan 18, 2023 at 8:26 am

Paul Clark is a registered user.

It is interesting to read the comments above. That said, none of them contextualizes the fact that the changes to our Earth's climate are global. That somehow if California "accomplishes its goals," that magically the world will avoid some pending calamity with respect to rising global temperatures.
So long as the world determines that China and India be designated as "emerging" countries, and thus allow them to build their energy infrastructure utilizing coal and oil ( today China has more than 1,500 coal-fired generating plants under construction), it seems to me that it matters little what California does.
California has done precious little in terms of projects that meet its burgeoning population. Recently, our governor requested that the PG&E's Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant curtail its process of permanently shutting down in light of our state's lack of enough available electricity to provide for the 40 million people who now live here. I might point out that Diablo Canyon produces about 10% of the state's electricity. Unfortunately, as I understand it, that process is irreversible.
And it's the same story with our water. CA has not build a major water storage facility since the 1980's (when there were only 20 million residents). Furthermore, there is something fundamentally wrong with the state's allocation of its water, with 50% going to the fish, 40% to agriculture, and only 10% to its citizens. And yet when we have a shortage of supply, the 10% gets to take a disproportionate share of the cutbacks.
So we continue to buy electric cars, get rid of gas-fired furnaces, and water heaters in the face of an electric infrastructure that can't even meet today's demands without the added requirements that will be needed to fill the energy gaps the losses of these units will require.
There is a cognitive dissonance in California that defies all logic, and if it is allowed to continue, California really has no future. Last year, 400,000 people left the state.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 18, 2023 at 11:14 am

Bystander is a registered user.

The discussion does continue here, but as yet the mild inconvenience of power outages and the need to perhaps throw food away seems to be what people consider as acceptable.

When power goes out, it isn't only homes that lose power.

Traffic lights go out and traffic circulation is impacted.

If schools lose power, what happens? Does the school send kids home? If parents can't get to school or home, are the kids just left alone?

If daycare centers lose power, do they have to close?

If dentists and other medical buildings lose power, what happens to someone halfway through a root canal?

This is the 21st century. Electric power is necessary for everyday life and the mild inconvenience may be mild unless you are in a situation where it is not.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Jan 18, 2023 at 12:38 pm

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

Sherry, you write:
"Presumably instead you believe we should focus on adapting to large levels of sea level rise, heat waves, etc, and helping other people (and animals?) do the same (?)"

That is not the case. You may be surprised to hear it, but I do share a level of concern about the climate and rising temperatures. However, I want to see our society and in fact the globe take actions that I believe will work. What California is doing now is taking expensive steps that I believe are ineffectual, and in fact counter productive because they waste resources and make people like me who are not climate ideologues resentful.

I believe the only way that the fossil fuel / greenhouse gas problem can be solved is by coming up with a better, cheaper alternative that people will voluntarily want to use. Nuclear power, perhaps with new smaller and safer reactor designs seems promising. The goal would be to make electricity so cheap that I will want to replace my gas appliances to save money. PG&E and California are very far from that now, obviously.

No matter how many expenses and inconveniences California inflicts on its citizens in service of forced electrification, it will not change what other countries do, especially poorer ones. Only a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels can do that.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Jan 18, 2023 at 2:04 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

All, thanks for the thoughtful comments.

@MichaelB, on your last point, you may be interested in this event at Hoover in two weeks: "Markets vs Mandates". It's an all-day thing on Monday, and I know you are in the East Bay, so it may well not be feasible for you to go. If I can make it, I'll do a writeup on it.

@Bystander, if you really want to worry about the potential dangers posed by outages (and I know you do), take a look at this. Not sure why I'm feeding the monster, though...

@Joseph and @Michael, I agree 100% that super cheap alternatives that entice people to voluntarily switch would be ideal. You can see some of that now with EVs. Change can happen very quickly in those circumstances.

But in cases where we aren't there, what do we do, since climate change is not slowing down in the meantime? We've spent decades delaying the transition, and we are seeing some of the consequences of that. Do we delay for decades more? Where do we draw the line at "good enough for now" and, if we are drawing it pretty high, then how do we hedge our bets?

My 2c: I have a hard time believing that cheap nuclear, fusion, carbon removal, and carbon-free gas/H2 to the home are going to happen at scale at low cost any time soon. Look at NuScale. These things take decades, if they happen at all. EVs took decades, even with LCFS mandates, and those are much simpler. So I prefer to go forward with the "good enough" solutions we have today, many of which are already popular across the world and parts of the US (e.g. heat pumps), and keep improving.

Of course it's reasonable to have a debate on how aggressive the transition to clean energy can be. These discussions happen all the time at the CEC, CARB, CPUC, etc. Mandates have to take cost and complexity into consideration, policies won't work if they are hugely unpopular, etc. There is plenty of room for discussion.

I guess what I wish is that people who were advocating to wait to transition until significant future technical inventions happen would be more eager to talk about their plans for adapting to a quickly warming climate, paying for that, and helping others do the same.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Posted by MyFeelz, a resident of another community,
on Jan 18, 2023 at 5:43 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

@Bystander, I am dumbfounded as to why people don't know what to do at an intersection when the power goes out. It's supposed to be treated like a stop sign. It's crazy as four cars are sitting n,s,e,w, looking at each other, with no idea who's supposed to go next.

As for what to do about repeat power outages, [portion removed], these recent power outages have a huge effect on people who use home electronic medical devices to stay alive. [portion removed]

Is anyone keeping count of how many times the power has gone out since January 2022?

The difference between utility and luxury is being felt here in this upscale neighborhood. There are those with luxury who can afford a generator, and there are those who depend on the only utility company in town to provide electricity. [portion removed]

Ed note: Portions were removed because they were ad hominem. See commenting guidelines above.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 19, 2023 at 8:05 am

Bystander is a registered user.

I happen to think that having an alternative point of view and asking unpopular questions does not make me deserve to being called a monster. Sorry, but calling names is not helpful. However, I appreciated the link.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Jan 19, 2023 at 9:19 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Bystander, I agree with that in general. In this case, FWIW, "feed the monster" (or maybe more commonly "feed the beast") is an idiom, not a personal attack.

Posted by MyFeelz, a resident of another community,
on Jan 19, 2023 at 3:32 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

[Portion omitted] As for how I dealt with Palo Alto's inability to provide 24/7 service and not letting the consumer have any other choice, AND no City emergency plan, I left. More people are leaving. For good. And the agency that is tasked with identifying flood prone areas says it will take a YEAR to study Palo Alto's vulnerability in the face of climate change. The new normal here is more third world than upper crust. Take a few zeroes off of the housing prices in the next year. We will finally have affordable housing. The good news is it's very easy to bury the power lines in mud. I think the city should expedite their plans if they're ever going to do it.

Posted by Petra Karenter, a resident of Professorville,
on Jan 20, 2023 at 11:02 am

Petra Karenter is a registered user.

Nice article. We recently had 2 power outages (40 hours and 16 hours). Fortunately we have a 20KW generator to supply electricity during the downtime.

I saw this article: “California's Green Debacle". Thought you'd be interested in it since you've been one of chief champions of the energy policies currently making life miserable for the citizens of our state.

Web Link

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jan 20, 2023 at 1:25 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Remember all those Diana Diamond blogs about the non-answers the city's given on how THEY'll cope with the increased demand for electricity? She's been asking those questions for a year and getting no answers from CPAU or the City Manager's "Communications" officers, chiefs and worker bees.

Maybe instead of asking us how we like sitting in the dark watching our food thaw, you could try toi get answers from the
You might also check the Our Town Palo Alto group on Facebook for people's reactions to the new rate hikes.

Posted by TripleLMember, a resident of Triple El,
on Jan 20, 2023 at 3:11 pm

TripleLMember is a registered user.

The problem with saying that one will make the transition away from carbon-based fuel when the alternatives are cheaper is that current market pricing does not take into account the externalities that using carbon-based fuel is causing. In the ideal world, all of the negative impacts of carbon-based fuels (e.g., higher gas tax) should be priced into the cost of fuel. In the absence of correct pricing mechanism, incentives and mandates are necessary.

Posted by Eric Muller, a resident of Los Altos,
on Jan 22, 2023 at 2:48 pm

Eric Muller is a registered user.

To answer Sherry's question: we live in Los Altos, and most likely had some outages; I remember that the transformer on the pole across the street blew up a while back. But those are complete non events for us. We are preparing to electrify our two gas uses (heat and hot water) when the appliances die on us. We did install solar panels last year, and we chose not to install batteries.

What is more intriguing for me is this: as we get rid of generation from fossil fuels, and hydro produces less (as it has done in the past 6-7 years or so), we will have to deal with the fact that the remaining sources are less flexible. One approach is to accept, the week of the year when both sun and wind are not cooperating, that we produce less steel and cement, and delay Amazon deliveries. I.e. build the infrastructure for the 98% case rather than the 110% case (and use the savings for other projects). Sounds like a good deal to me; who wants to join me?

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