California PGE Rolling Blackouts: What you Need to Know

By Tim Henderson

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Last Updated on

Jul 16

In 2018, historic wildfires ravaged California. The Camp Fire destroyed the city of Paradise. It also caused an unprecedented 85 deaths and a widespread power outage.

Investigators found that equipment owned by California utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) (faulty equipment along the Caribou-Palermo electric transmission line) likely started the blaze. The admission generated a dramatic drop in PG&E’s profits. The company eventually filed for bankruptcy protection, citing $30 billion in liabilities.

As 2019’s wildfire season approaches, PG&E is taking an aggressive approach to fire safety, in hopes of preventing a similar disaster. Their new plan, the Public Safety Power Shut Off Program (PSPS), proposes rolling blackouts throughout the state of California. California has been using outages for years to decrease wildfire risk. PG&E’s program, however, promises to have much broader implications than any program in the past.

Here’s what you need to know about PG&E’s rolling blackouts this summer, and how they may impact you.

What are Rolling Blackouts?

Typically, rolling blackouts are reserved for severe events. Designed to prevent a total failure of the state power system, rolling blackouts kick in when operating reserves dip below 1.5%. Here’s a brief breakdown of how rolling blackouts work in California:

  • In the eyes of utility companies, California is divided into large chunks. PG&E, for example, segments their service area into “blocks.”
  • When the state encounters a Stage 3 energy crisis, local electric suppliers receive a notification that it’s time to initiate load reduction statewide.
  • The suppliers then initiate a system of power outages that rotate (or “roll”) through service areas.
  • The outages move in numerical order – starting with block #1 and moving down the line until the blackout is over.
  • Critical facilities, such as hospitals, police stations, and fire departments will remain unaffected by the blackouts. The same is true for some residents who live near these vital facilities.

Why the PG&E Planned Outages?

PG&E’s rolling blackout approach aims to address the energy crisis in California, while also limiting fire danger in the state. Our state is vulnerable to dry, windy weather, which boosts both fire risk and the possibility of electrical equipment sparking and starting a blaze.

PG&E first launched its shut-off plan last year, although the outages only affected about 570,000 customers. This year, the disruptions will impact all 5.4 million of PG&E’s customer accounts. According to PG&E:

“While customers in high fire-threat areas (based on the CPUC High Fire-Threat District map) are more likely to be affected, a public safety power outage could impact any of the more than 5 million customers who receive electric service from PG&E. This is because the energy system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties, and regions.”

This change is the result of PG&E’s shut-off program expansion, and the fact that the new program targets high-voltage transmission lines, like the ones suspected of starting the Camp Fire. This aspect of the plan worries many customers. If high-voltage transmission lines go dark, customers throughout the state will feel the impacts. This is true even for households and businesses far outside “at risk” areas. If PG&E does shut down power to your home or business, it could be off for a day or longer. Currently, the utility recommends people prepare for outages lasting 48 hours or more.

What This Means for Businesses

Businesses will suffer a significant blow during the California PG&E rolling blackouts. Potential pitfalls include lost revenue, increased downtime, and system unpredictability.

While the utility plans to issue two days’ notice to households enrolled in the company’s assistance program (those that need more energy due to a medical condition), there is no such known plan in place for businesses.

The company recommends that individuals and businesses supply the utility with a current email address, landline, and mobile number so PG&E “can reach out to you in advance of a Public Safety Power Shutoff event, when possible.”

What to do Instead

Businesses don’t have to settle for being in the dark this summer. To avoid rolling blackouts and their disastrous impacts on revenue, many companies have chosen to take matters into their own hands, instead. By installing microgrids (a system of solar panels, solar energy storage, and a natural gas generator), California businesses can fight back against rolling blackouts. These microgrids allow companies to be energy independent and control their power, no matter what happens with the state’s fickle utility.

Want to learn more about microgrids and how they can improve your business? Contact Sandbar Solar today and find out how you can own your power.

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About the Author

Tim has worked in the solar industry since 2008. He has a Master's Degree in Energy Resources Engineering from Stanford University. His years of experience include working on solar energy projects for both homes and commercial properties. Tim enjoys sharing his knowledge of this evolving industry and making a difference in his community.