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 and high winds 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 outage timeline look like, and what can you expect moving forward?
Electricity reliability is very high, though outages have increased on average across the U.S., with certain states seeing higher outages.
In recent years, California and PG&E have seen increased outages due to wildfires and high winds.
We break down the timing and customers impacted by PG&E's planned outages over the last few years.
If you're interested in powering your home even during a utility outage, use the EnergySage Marketplace to browse solar panels and battery storage options based on price, efficiency, brand, quality, and more.
Overall, the electricity grid in the U.S. is very reliable: we've come to expect our electricity to be on all the time, partly because the grid works so well. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the average electricity user in the U.S. had just over eight hours of electric power interruptions in 2020, which is the most since the EIA began collecting electricity reliability data in 2013.
Editor's note: there are a few key metrics that utilities and regulators use to track reliability, most notably the system average interruption duration index (SAIDI), the system average interruption frequency index (SAIFI), and the customer average interruption duration index (CAIDI) to measure duration, frequency, and customer impact of outages. If you want to get into the weeds, EIA publishes these data by utility in their annual 861 datasets.
Outages related to significant events such as severe storms and wildfires have increased in frequency and severity in recent years, causing more frequent and prolonged "power interruptions." This is particularly true in California, where wildfire-related outages and those caused by high winds are increasing regularly.
PG&E has a fraught relationship with wildfires.
Wildfires can be sparked by and exacerbated by several 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 regulations.
This has one significant 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.
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 outages but, more importantly, significant destruction. Sadly, this continued to be the case through 2021, with California fire investigators recently blaming PG&E equipment for the Dixie Fire — the second-largest blaze in the state's history— and referring the matter to prosecutors.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection also determined that electrical distribution lines owned and operated by PG&E were responsible for starting the 2020 Zogg Fire and the 2018 Camp Fire, the state's deadliest wildfire.
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 proximity to trees. These proactive outages, known as Public Safety Power Shutoffs, or PSPS events, can shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers for days and look set to continue for the foreseeable future.
In January 2022, PG&E announced a new name and expanded scope to more effectively monitor potential natural disasters like wildfires and ensure the continued safety of their customers. The Wildfire Safety Operations Center (WSOC) has been the company's 24/7 hub for monitoring wildfire risks and coordination, prevention, and response efforts across Northern and Central California since 2018. It is now the Hazard Awareness & Warning Center or HAWC.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the regulator of electric utilities in California, found in 2012 that utilities could proactively "shut off electric power to protect public safety." While PG&E and San Diego Gas & Electric used PSPS events in 2018, the practice began in earnest during the fire season in 2019, with the most current set of PSPS guidelines adopted in 2020.
According to post-event reports to the CPUC, PG&E called major "proactive de-energization" (their term, not ours) events on the following dates in 2019, 2020, and 2021:
2019 PG&E PSPS events
June 7-9, 2019: 22,000 customers
September 25-27, 2019: 49,000 customers
October 5-6, 2019: 11,300 customers
October 9-12, 2019: 732,348 customers (!!!)
October 23-25, 2019: 177,000 customers
October 26 & 29, 2019: 941,000 customers (holy cow)
November 20-21, 2019: 49,000 customers
2020 PG&E PSPS events
September 7-10, 2020: 171,947 customers
September 27-29, 2020: 64,297 customers
October 14-17, 2020: 40,574 customers
October 21-23, 2020: 30,154 customers
October 25-28, 2020: 345,470 customers
December 2-3, 2020: 617 customers
2021 PG&E PSPS events
January 19, 2021: 5,099 customers
August 17-19, 2021: 48,155 customers
September 20-21, 2021: 2,968 customers
October 11, 2021: 23,504 customers
October 14-16, 2021: 28,666 customers
Reports on the PSPS events can be found here.
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 on 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.
PG&E has resources for customers to understand more about PSPS events, including details on what to expect and how to prepare. They send notifications to anyone in the PSPS outage areas.
Check out our video on solar panels and batteries working when the grid is down. To start your solar plus storage project, sign up for a free account on EnergySage today to get your custom solar and storage quotes from installers in your area. You can also learn about solar incentives available in California here.