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By Sherry Listgarten

Power Outages: Are You Ready?

Uploaded: May 26, 2019

We are reducing greenhouse gas emissions by switching from gas to electric power. We have electric cars, trucks and buses, space heating, water heating, industrial processes, and more. These new systems are cleaner, more efficient, and often quieter. Our emissions are down significantly and going lower. But: what if the power goes out?

Power outages are a fact of life, despite ongoing work to limit them. There are many disparate causes: animals chewing wires, backhoes hitting buried cables, mylar balloons floating into power lines, trees falling on equipment, and more. Below is a chart showing the causes of PG&E power outages lasting five minutes or more in 2018, from the PG&E reliability page.

Causes of PG&E power outages in 2018, for outages lasting at least 5 minutes

We are accustomed to dealing with a certain level of power outages, but as we electrify more things, will that get harder? Some of the traditional impacts of power outages include:
- lights and appliances going out (e.g., refrigerators, air conditioners, electric heaters, home medical devices)
- traffic lights and street lights going out (resulting in possible safety issues)
- telecommunications partially going out (e.g., due to wireless routers losing power or cell phones unable to recharge)
- gas pumps not working
- generators kicking in for critical services (hospitals, fire stations)

Does it get significantly worse as we add electric vehicles, heat pumps, and cooking appliances to the mix? Or is it about the same degree of inconvenience? Are any of you holding back on switching to electric because of concern about outages? Alternatively, have any of you incorporated some kind of backup? I would love to hear from you in the comments.

To add to this puzzle, power outages themselves are becoming more common. The chart below, from the PG&E reliability page, shows the total minutes an average PG&E customer was without power due to outages lasting more than five minutes. It does not include “major event days”, but you can still see the impact of the fires and storms that have strained our grid over the last few years.

Average total outage minutes for PG&E customers, excluding major event days

If you include major events, the 2017 average total outage duration more than triples, to 374 minutes from 113.4. (I do not have 2018 data.) The Sonoma area had an astonishing 30+ hours of outages on average in 2017. Listed below are the five largest outage events that year. (1)

Not a pretty picture. Outages not only of multiple days, but of multiple weeks. If you read this series of articles from a Tahoe paper during the Jan 8-11 storms, you will see one that describes crews going door-to-door in Tahoe neighborhoods to “assess the health and welfare of residents” who had been without power for nearly a week. The last article provides an interesting take on lessons learned. For example: “We were opening shelters at night and warming/charging centers during the day, but if people don’t have power, their mobile devices are either dead or without a signal — it’s impossible to let the people who need our help the most know what their options are… The lack of phone and cell service also made it very difficult for us (county staff) to communicate with each other.” If you believe that severe storms and wildfires are part of a “new normal” in California, then these outages are a cause for concern as we rely more on electricity to reduce our emissions. (2)

Here on the Peninsula power has been more dependable, we are in less fire and storm danger, and the temperate climate means it’s easier to go without heat or AC. Below is a chart showing the same outage data (excluding major event days) through 2017, just for the Peninsula.

Average total outage minutes on the Peninsula, excluding major event days

Yet even our area may see more outages. A newly-announced plan by PG&E to more proactively shut off power could impact us. (3) It is called the Public Service Power Shut-off, or PSPS for short. PG&E plans to “de-energize” distribution lines in certain areas on high-risk fire days. Those areas are shown in yellow (“elevated risk”) and red (“extreme risk”) in the map below. On the Peninsula, the area impacted is largely to the west of 280.

In addition, PG&E is looking to de-energize long high-voltage transmission lines during windy and dry conditions. That could impact many other areas, including much of the rest of the Peninsula, as described in this Mercury News article. Concerned regulators are working with PG&E to try to limit the occurrence of these high-impact events. From a Utility Dive writeup describing some of the challenges of PSPS, the CPUC has issued strongly-worded guidelines to limit abuse, such as: “Under no circumstances may the utilities employ de-energization solely as a means of reducing their own liability risk from utility-infrastructure wildfire ignitions." You can imagine the temptation to do that, especially given PG&E’s responsibility in the recent Camp Fire.

It should be an interesting summer and fall this year, as PSPS plays out for the first time. Are you ready?

In the next blog post, I will talk about what our local utilities are doing to reduce the impact of outages. But for this blog post, I would love to hear what (if anything) you are doing to prepare for power outages, and what concerns you have about how outages may impact your home or work, or why you don’t have concerns.

Notes and References

1. See page 393 of the 2017 PGE reliability report for more detail on these, plus the five next largest outage events.

2. Beyond the storms and wildfires, there is an increasing risk of cyber-terrorism on our power grid. An attack that occurred just a few weeks ago is described (rather vaguely) here.

3. A shorter FAQ on the Public Service Shut-off Plan can be found here.

Current Climate Data (April 2019)

Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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