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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)

Comment Guidelines

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 moderated:
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What is it worth to you?


Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on May 26, 2019 at 9:51 am

Neal is a registered user.

For decades I've owned a small portable generator as part of my earthquake preparedness. I keep a generous supply of fresh gasoline on hand. This should easily take care of my needs during a power outage.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 26, 2019 at 4:45 pm

"For decades I've owned a small portable generator as part of my earthquake preparedness."

It is amazing how limited the capabilities of portable generators can be; many will not operate even an electric drill.

Compare the label rating on your small portable generator with the sum of your essential loads: medical devices, refrigerator, furnace, essential lighting, ... . Pay attention to the power factors and starting demands of electric motors. For long-term steady use, restrict your load to one half the generator rating. Also consider the hazards of keeping that gasoline around.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 26, 2019 at 5:42 pm

P G & E have announced that they will more than likely shut down power in certain weather conditions, high winds, dry summers, etc. to prevent destruction of forest fires. While we all are not only sympathetic but also quite horrified with the destruction of the town of Paradise and other major fires in recent years, the problem with power outages can and does cause more problems and we do need to discuss it more.

Several years ago a plane took down a pylon in East Palo Alto. The discussions that took place and sympathy towards those who lost their lives plus the fact that a preschool and other homes in East Palo Alto were threatened is not to be forgotten, but is not why I am mentioning it. The ramifications of this accident were the very serious 12 hours that Palo Alto was out of action. In fact if this happened now, I feel that it would be an even more serious consequence due to our more vital dependency on electricity.

From routine surgeries at Stanford Hospital, to businesses like Safeway having no method of charging customers, to every restaurant and service business not being able to function, let alone all the high tech companies with servers, etc. being down, our town came to a standstill. Classes in our schools couldn't function because the classrooms are so dark as they have no natural light coming through windows to enable teachers to see students and students able to see the teacher. Traffic lights stopped so traffic was impacted.

If the same or similar event happened now, nothing has been done to prevent Palo Alto closing down. If we lose power, citywide for a period of 12 hours, it would be a similar scenario to a major earthquake for the duration in some respects.

We must get power lines underground. The type of outages we experience due to squirrels, storms, mylar balloons, just do not happen in other countries where powerlines are underground.

It is embarrassing that here in Silicon Valley where we invent most of the technology that the rest of the world uses, we are still dangling our powerlines through trees, subject to outages, that the rest of the world just do not have to experience.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on May 26, 2019 at 10:22 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

I read somewhere that we are meant to expect a one-day outage every ten years or so. I don't think I've ever experienced a day-long outage. I was here for the rolling blackouts and they didn't seem so bad (from my perspective, anyway). So I've never worried much about outages. But I wonder, as we rely more on electricity and as the risks get greater -- from the sheer rate of change of our grid to proactive fire prevention outages to hacking -- if that is going to change.

Would you be surprised if there is a multi-day outage in our area in the next ten years?

It seems to me, as tech is getting cheaper, that it increasingly makes sense for a home to have a decent-sized battery, ideally coupled to solar. It's expensive, but prices will come down. Or, to save money, figure out how to use an inverter with your EV battery. I'm curious what people are doing, if anything, or whether people are unconcerned. If I were living in Tahoe, I would be concerned enough to avoid switching to heat pumps for heating, especially since outages are more likely to occur in colder weather. In our area, I'm not sure how concerned we should be.

@Resident -- I agree, it would be really nice if our power lines were underground. But I expect it's expensive, and maybe that money (which we probably don't have anyway) would be put to better use to (for example) set up some sort of a microgrid for our city. I don't know!

@Neal -- Have you ever had to use your generator?

Posted by JD, a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline,
on May 27, 2019 at 9:41 am

We live in the redwoods where power outages are common. We have a 16KVA automatic generator powered by a 500 gallon propane tank. If the tank is full we can go 5 days on generator power if we have to. We're used to power outages in the winter, but we'll see what PG&E does this summer during high fire danger periods.

If there is a fire and power has been out people may not be able to report it.

Even though our generator powers the house, if the outage affects the local repeaters our internet and phone go out after about 3 hours (since they have local battery backup for about that amount of time.)

Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on May 27, 2019 at 11:29 am

Neal is a registered user.

@Sherry I used my generator only once when there was a power outage about thirty years ago. When the power goes out you never know when it will come back on. Just for practice I ran the generator and kept my refrigerator working. Several hours later the power returned. In hindsight it really wasn't necessary.

@Curmeudgeon My essential power needs are very low so I'm sure my generator is up to the task. Appliances like refrigerators, computers, lights and TVs only need power intermittently. I can essentially create a rolling blackout around the house by de-energizing one load before energizing another.

Have no fear, my gasoline is safely stored.

Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Mountain View,
on May 27, 2019 at 12:38 pm

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Resident: "From routine surgeries at Stanford Hospital, to businesses like Safeway having no method of charging customers, to every restaurant and service business not being able to function, let alone all the high tech companies with servers, etc."

Bay-Area institutions like hospitals and high-tech firms customarily provide at least basic backup-generator capability if power is important to their business -- if only from awareness of earthquakes and their very protracted power disruptions. At least one firm I worked at also maintained and tested emergency shortwave-radio facilities "capable of reaching Sacramento and Los Angeles" after the 1989 experience, when Bay-Area communications too were disabled. Impaired access to Safeway is more in the category of nuisance (or "first-world problems"), a reminder not to depend on refrigerated foods. Think of it: You might not even have Whole Foods or Draeger's available either! (The horror! :-)

It can actually be less of an issue even than that. During a several-hours evening outage in the 1990s, our local large Safeway ran on its generator (its manager even went around graciously offering her customers hot coffee). The only shoppers much inconvenienced were those who expect to pay for every 39-cent purchase by credit card, which is their own choice.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 27, 2019 at 10:11 pm

"Have no fear, my gasoline is safely stored."

Almost forgot: Be sure to refresh it every 12 months or so. Stale gasoline burns poorly.

And thanks for the opportunity to educate the readership.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on May 28, 2019 at 9:42 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@JD -- Yes, I agree, I think communication and internet during power outages may be the biggest issue that we need to address. Because even if the actual impacts are not so bad, the uncertainty and isolation can cause problems. I wonder how many people are subscribed to text alerts, and how well they work (Santa Clara County alerts, San Mateo County alerts).

@Max -- Yeah, I'm coming to the conclusion that this evolution in power is not exacerbating the outage problem so much as it is offering more ways to address it, at least in our area. I do think that electrification (esp space heating) presents a significant risk in cold areas, though, particularly those that are prone to outages. That is where I think microgrids are interesting, plus some of the work that utilities are doing, which I'll try to cover in the next post.

@Resident -- I agree that power outages are inconvenient. But I believe that places like hospitals and assisted living centers already have backups, so I'm not sure the outages are going to seem much worse, even if they get more frequent. And we have more tools now to mitigate them. Communication, though, is a problem. And I do think a multi-day outage would be new for this area.

It's interesting to look at how often outages are happening. Do a search of the Weekly, for example, for "power outage". (I asked the utility a few times for stats, but they did not reply, except to say that they are generally low, which appears to be true.)

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde,
on May 28, 2019 at 11:30 pm

So, does everyone here know how to operate their electric garage door opener during a power outage? (Review your instruction manual if you can find it.) More interesting will be those people moving into the new Windy Hill Properties condo development on the old VTA parking lot at El Camino and Page Mill, or anywhere else equipped with new-fangled "puzzle lift" parking. Get your car out of the basement quickly before the back-up battery is exhausted, if it works at all.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 29, 2019 at 9:23 am

I think this acceptance of power supply outages becoming the norm is a backwards philosophy and should be stopped. We need a reliable power supply and trying to plan our lives for these eventualities as a normal occurrence is very wrong. Apart from if we have a large earthquake, or similar disaster, we should be able to depend on our power supply.

This is Silicon Valley. This is not small town America. Nearly every business I know is very dependent on power. Losing power at all is very bad for business and a prolonged outage of 8 hours or more would be a disaster. Many small businesses such as restaurants and food stores should not be expected to have generating equipment to keep their food from spoiling. Many small businesses would lose money as well as some of their foodstuffs if they could not function during such times particularly as they would still have to pay the wages of the staff who would be sitting around with no work to do. Many of these and other types of businesses run on such a tight shoe string financially that losing a day's business might just bankrupt them. Even small high tech businesses are competing globally with customers all over the world and they just might lose important customers to another country if a product could not be delivered because of a power outage here. High tech products are delivered by the push of a button on a computer screen, not a cardboard box being sent across the world.

I think this ideal world scenario just doesn't take into account the reality of a reliable power supply in the real world. Stanford is a first class hospital and when they lost power from the EPA air crash, they had to cancel a lot of routine surgeries so that the power they could generate on their own generators could be used for emergency surgeries only. So even they could not function without the city power grid. Imagine if SFO lost power and they only let arriving planes in to save power. Imagine the traffic mess if the whole of the Bay Area lost power at the same time. Our own schools couldn't function without power, because the buildings are too dark for anyone to see anything inside. We have so many electric cars around and when they needed to charge they would be useless. Bart and soon to be Caltrain would have to stop without power and who knows what the situation is for all those at grade crossings in town.

I am very much against this idea of power being interrupted and thought of as a minor inconvenience that we have to plan for. Instead, the powers that be should be working to improve our supply distribution methods to prevent outages, earthquakes excepted.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on May 29, 2019 at 5:05 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@musical. Ha, great question. From what I can tell online, the parking lifts do have manual overrides. So that’s a start. But do people know how to use them?

@Resident. It does seem a little much to leave outage resilience as an exercise for the businesses. But eliminating outages would be prohibitively expensive, if possible at all. So the question is, where to draw the line? What is the “right amount” of resilience? The state has traditionally regulated utilities with reliability in mind, and the utilities have built redundancy. But will that be enough as the risk of power outages grows? I am going to cover this in a blog post very soon, with input from our own local utilities. In the meantime, here is an op-ed written by representatives of large power consumers cautioning about the cost of building “too much” resilience into the grid. Thanks for the very thoughtful comment.

Posted by MV Resident, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jun 1, 2019 at 11:54 pm

"We are reducing greenhouse gas emissions by switching from gas to electric power."

Electric power which is generated primarily by burning fossil fuels. Power generation which is done near lower-income populations. To fuel electric cars that use batteries comprised of heavy metals mined in parts of the world that have the worst environmental and child-labor records.

Posted by cheri, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Jun 2, 2019 at 8:07 am

> use batteries comprised of heavy metals mined in parts of the world that have the worst environmental and child-labor records.

Australia? They're the top lithium producer, at least until China's newly announced technology comes on line.

Chile is number two, and according to the US, their child labor issues do not involve mines (mostly farm and service work.)

iirc, those two account for half the lithium.


re: "Electric power which is generated primarily by burning fossil fuels."

Not in CA. See Sherry's previous blogs.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Jun 2, 2019 at 11:34 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@MV Resident
The California grid is less than half gas+coal on average throughout the year. You can see what is on the grid at any given moment by visiting this site and looking at those colorful circle graphs partway down. Right now (11am June morning) it is less than 20% gas.

You can also look at this report to see how emissions have dropped over the years as our power has gotten cleaner. (Overall demand may have dropped some as well, because of efficiency improvements.)

One of the nice side-effects of this is that many of the dirtiest gas and coal plants are closing, which has been a boon to the generally lower-income communities where they are located.

We need to keep working to better align power demand with when supply is cleanest. Two ways to do that are to move demand to midday (e.g., EV charging or other flexible loads), and to move clean supply to other times of day, which is largely done with batteries, though there are other forms of energy storage. You live in Mountain View, so you might be interested to know that your local power utility -- Silicon Valley Clean Energy -- has invested in two large solar + battery facilities, which is a great way to generate more flexible supply. They should come online in 2021.

Your larger point, which is that we need to pay attention to the supply chain and overall emissions of the cleaner power components, is a good one. I believe there is a bunch of work on batteries, for example, but I’m not up on it all yet. Would love any references you would like to share. Here is one article that indicates that the battery industry is moving away from cobalt, whose mining does exploit child labor.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 6, 2019 at 7:28 am

Power outage this morning due to tree impact (6/6) - Twitter

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 6, 2019 at 9:28 am

Turns out to be a seagull!

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Jun 6, 2019 at 3:39 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Izh, poor guy... I wish that outage data for our cities/counties were more accessible -- event, duration, impact, cause, etc. Maybe it is and I just don't know where to find it?

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 10, 2019 at 3:50 pm

Second power outage in a week for some areas. Last week a seagull, this week possibly a balloon. Just how many outages do you find acceptable? 6/10 with temps at 102. Web Link Follow PA Utilities on Twitter to get updated on power outages.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Jun 10, 2019 at 4:54 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Yeah, there was another comment about this on the newer post...

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 10, 2019 at 10:49 pm

More outages this evening 6/10.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Jun 10, 2019 at 11:08 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Good grief. Maybe I should write a post about negative emissions and they will also start happening...

I think it is true that as days get warmer, outages on those days are more serious. I can't imagine what happens if there is a sustained outage in Phoenix, for example.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 15, 2019 at 3:59 pm

Power outage today, 7/15 due to tree stuck in power lines. Web Link

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