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How the PG&E Outages Could Affect Millions — Not Just 800,000

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We've all heard PG&E will shut off power to about 800,000 customers due to an extreme weather event over the next few days, triggering confusion — and speculation — about how many people that is that exactly. (JochenK/iStock)

Since PG&E announced Tuesday that up to 800,000 customers will experience power shutoffs due to gusty winds and dry conditions over the next two days, it’s triggered a lot of confusion — and speculation — about how many humans this actually translates into.

In PG&E parlance, customers means meters — not people. But some news outlets and others have taken that 800,000 to mean, yes, people.

We asked PG&E for the answer, which they said they didn't have. But they did provide some numbers, which we took to an academic to help us get to the bottom of this:

  • 747,000 customers will have their power shut off (plus another 42,000 in a potential third phase of shutoffs)
  • 5.4 million electric “customers” (this is an actual meter)
  • 16 million people total served in Northern and Central California

There are some X factors to take into account, said Stanford University’s Michael Wara, like:

  • Some of the "customers" are not residential, but commercial-industrial properties
  • Major metropolitan areas, such as San Francisco and downtown San Jose (the Bay Area’s biggest city) will not experience preemptive outages
  • The number of people in each household. Wara worked off the number of 2.5 to 3 people based on energy modeling and household energy consumption data

With all of that in mind, Wara calculates that from 1.8 million to 2.4 million people could have their power shut off.

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“It's uncertain and I think all we can do is give a best guess. This has never happened before and so we haven't had to think in these terms," said Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment.

“[The] Loma Prieta [earthquake] blacked out more customers but for a much shorter interval of time, a couple of days. And that's the only really comparable event that I can find in historical record,” he added. The current PG&E power shutoffs could last multiple days.

Wara’s house in Mill Valley lost power at 2 a.m. Wednesday. He said it’s been “totally disruptive” for his family, and he thought PG&E was “doing a lot of learning right now about how to do this better the next time.”

“They're really just doing the kinds of things to their system that are going to give them the real-time information about whether that will allow them to be more kind of surgical,” he said.


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