It came completely out of the blue. All across the San Francisco Bay Area, on the afternoon of October 7th, 2019, people got the messages. They came in the form a cryptic text from our electric utility, Pacific Gas and Electric. PGE is the only show in town, so everyone in the Bay Area depends on them for power. The messages said simply “Due to weather forecast, PGE may turn off power on 10/9. Prepare a plan.”
Technically, PGE had been telling us to expect this for a while. In 2018, their equipment allegedly sparked one of the deadliest wildfires in California history. The liability drove them into bankruptcy. Both the destruction — and the financial risk — are something PGE definitely does not want to repeat.
So for the last year, they’ve been warning customers that they may implement Public Safety Power Shutoffs if the risk of wildfires gets too high. Basically this means that they preemptively shut off big chunks of the grid, plunging the whole region into cold and darkness, but hopefully stopping their equipment from sparking another major blaze.
While California was technically prepared for this concept, I don’t think anyone expected how soon it would be used, or really thought about what a region-wide shutoff would mean. As the alerts came in, people were initially confused. Was this legit? Was it yet another robo-calling scam? Would our utility really switch off the whole region — one of the economic powerhouses of the nation — over a concerning weather forecast? What about our neighbors or family members who depend on electricity for medical equipment or keeping their insulin refrigerated? How would they fare?
By Tuesday the 8th, it started to sink in that this was for real. And people got antsy. It didn’t help that PGE’s information was extremely vague. As more and more people tried to tune it to their alerts, their website crashed. So they launched another website. It also crashed. Then they resorted to posting things to Twitter. Essentially, they said that power would start to be shut off at midnight on Wednesday. It might start with just certain areas, or it might be for everyone. Or it might happen later. Or it might not happen at all.
The confusion was so intense that even local police departments started posting memes. One post showed a “map” of the expected outages, which was just a picture of the Bay Area with red scribbles across it, as if a toddler had randomly colored over the region.
By Tuesday night, some people were panicking. Long lines started to build up at gas stations as people fueled up their cars, and ice and food disappeared from supermarket shelves. There was a general feeling of anxiety or impending doom over the area, heightened by confusion about when or if anything would happen.
Ultimately, it did happen. On Wednesday morning, much of Marin County woke up with no power. PGE has shut the grid down overnight, anticipating high winds and low humidity that made fire risk unacceptably high. Though this was obviously a huge challenge, Marin was mainly resolute. The memory of last year’s deadly fires is still strong in the county, and many people seemed ready to brave the hardship of an outage to avoid more fires.
PGE also announced that the East Bay would lose power around noon. This covers some very major metropolitan areas, including Oakland, Berkeley, and parts of San Jose. Shutting off power to the more rural and affluent Marin County is one thing, but shutting off power to dense and urban Oakland is another thing entirely. Noon rolled by, though, and nothing happened. PGE said they were moving the outage to 8pm. Then to midnight. People tuned into the news, kept refreshing the broken website, and waited to see if the lights would go out.
At about 11pm, for much of the East Bay, they did. I live in San Ramon, and we lost power around 11:30. We were lucky — it stayed off only until 7am the next morning. It was spooky overnight, with howling windows outside and no lights (the weather PGE anticipated ultimately did — kind of — arrive). In the morning, I made coffee on our gas stove by lantern light, but pretty shortly afterwards, everything was back on.
Other regions were not so lucky. Power remained off in much of Contra Costa County for days afterwards. Despite the shutoff, a wildfire started in Moraga, prompting evacuations. On Thursday morning, the normally affluent and bustling town of Lafayette was a ghost town, with makeshift stop signs in the intersections and traffic lights out.
Many businesses posted signs saying they were closed due to the outage. Some institutions were able to install generators in advance, and served as makeshift shelters.
PGE also opened formal shelters with phone charging and air conditioning around the region. Other local utilities really stepped up — EMBUD, our water utility, installed generators at all their pumping stations, keeping water service going throughout the outage. “We believe in backups, and backups, and backups,” said Andrea Pook of EBMUD, a great strategy indeed. CALTRANS installed generators to keep the lights on in the Caldecott Tunnel, and this essential artery to San Francisco remained open. Traffic was bad, but people kept going.
By 7pm on Saturday the 12th, PGE announced that power had been restored to all customers. All told, more than 1 million customers had lost power during the shutoff. Rural areas in Kern County and the like were the last to get power back, but many regions had it by Friday morning.
With the power back on, it’s too early to tell what the impact of the power shutoff will be. But it’s likely to be vast. You can’t shut off a hugely important region of the country for days and expect no fallout. Lost productivity and property damage could run into the millions, or even billions. While many people seem to recognize that the shutoff was essential to save lives, anger at PGE is still running high. There have been calls to made PGE a public utility, or to fine it for future shutoffs.
Among the more affluent residents of the Bay Area, talk about generators and private microgrids has already begun. Tesla announced that they would install backup solar power at all their chargers in the region — electric car users were hard hit by the outage — and many residents will likely install their own solar microgrids and house-scale batteries.
This is ultimately a positive outcome. So, too, is the ability for local utilities to test their backup plans — EBMUD and others came through with flying colors.
For less affluent residents — who can’t afford to leave the region during an outage or install solar backups — the impact will likely be much worse. For those living paycheck to paycheck, missing even a single day of work can be catastrophic. And several days without power for someone who needs refrigerated insulin or an oxygen generator can be life-threatening.
I hope that the shutoff results in better redundant backups, and more widespread adoption of green technologies like solar microgrids and batteries. And I hope it prompts PGE and public officials to put much more emphasis on upgrading essential infrastructure so it doesn’t risk starting more fires.
Finally, though, I hope that while we as Californians implement these changes, PGE and the State don’t lose sight of the impact on the region’s most vulnerable residents. A shutoff is an inconvenience — or a reason to invest in solar — for many, but for others it’s a life or death situation. I hope their needs are acknowledged and met.