How to Prepare for Power Shutoffs During a Heat Wave and Pandemic

Oakland's Montclair neighborhood during a PG&E power shutoff on Oct. 10, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Updated 6:50 p.m. Monday

This power outage map shows where electricity has been shut off by PG&E and other California utilities

There are two kinds of power outages Californians may be subject to — rolling blackouts and public safety power shutoffs (PSPS). If your lights go out, it may be a decision made by your utility company, like PG&E, or the power grid operators, who keep up the grid in about 80% of the state.

Rolling Blackouts

The California ISO manages the delicate balance of power supply and demand on the state’s electrical grid, effectively ordering utilities to cut power to customers.

“It’s one big interconnected system,” said John Phipps, an operations director with the California ISO. “Energy being generated at one plant can feed homes completely on the other end of the state."

For example, Phipps says "if Diablo Canyon had problems in Northern California, that could impact San Diego."

Public Safety Power Shutoff

PG&E announced a possible planned power shutoff for Monday, Tuesday and possibly Wednesday due to strong and dry offshore winds.

The planned power outage may begin Monday evening and could impact approximately 103,000 customers in portions of 22 counties in the Sierra foothills and North Bay, as well as seven tribes, according to PG&E.

In 2019, the California Public Utility Commission approved a new set of rules allowing the state's major utilities to preemptively shut off the power during times of high fire danger.

Public safety power shutoffs are used to reduce the risk of electrical equipment sparking fires during exceedingly windy, dry, hot weather. PG&E had considered shutting off power before the deadly Camp Fire. Red flag warnings by the National Weather Service are a good indicator of high risk fire conditions.

Utilities are supposed to notify emergency responders of a potential power shutoff 48 to 72 hours in advance and notify regular customers somewhere between 24 to 48 hours beforehand. There should also be follow-up messages a few hours before a shutoff begins and again during the shutoff.

To be notified of a public safety power shutoff in your area, update your contact information with PG&E. You can also call them at 1-866-743-6589 to update your contact information and to receive notifications. You can sign up to be notified by ZIP code or check their website for the most recent information.

If there is a power shutoff, here's what you need to know

What to do before a power shutoff

After an alert about a potential power shutoff, PG&E suggests preparing to be without power for more than 48 hours. If a power shutoff affects a large number of customers, it can take multiple days for the utility to do safety checks and get the power turned back on. In some cases, it might be best to stay with family or friends during the outage.

Things to do in advance of a power shutoff, according to PG&E:

  • Create an emergency kit with enough water and nonperishable food to last up to a week. (Here's what we suggest goes in an emergency bag in case of a fire — with COVID-19 in mind.)
  • Charge your cellphone and any necessary devices. Have additional batteries for any medical devices that require electricity. If you don't have a landline or your landline won't work without power, then have backup batteries for any cellphones as well.
  • Have a list of emergency contacts prepared.
  • If you plan to use a generator, check it beforehand to ensure it is ready to go and will operate safely.
  • Have flashlights and extra batteries on hand. (Try to avoid using candles.)
  • Have extra cash on hand and a full tank of gas. ATMs and gas stations may not work during a power outage.
  • Make sure you know how to manually open any door that requires electricity, such as garage doors or building doors that require key cards.

If you rely on power for medical needs, you may need to talk to your doctor in advance about how to prepare with medications or mobility needs. If possible, you may want to stay with a family member or friend who has power. You can register for PG&E's medical baseline program, if you have a life-assisting medical device, which will qualify you for lower rates and provide you with additional advance notification.

What to do during a power shutoff

Once the power is off, keep in mind that emergency responders may be dealing with their own backup power needs and any emergency medical situations that come up. Do not call 911 unless it's an emergency. Additionally, infrastructure, such as traffic lights, may be impacted — so proceed with caution. San Jose has asked residents to avoid driving if the power is shut off and to stop at dark signals.

  • Unplug or turn off any appliances and equipment to prevent damage from surges when the power is restored. (PG&E recommends keeping one lamp turned on to alert you when the power is back, and to then turn each appliance back on one by one.)
  • A refrigerator can keep food cold for about four hours and a freezer for about 48 hours — if they're kept closed. Plan to rely on coolers with ice.
  • Use generators, camp stoves and grills outdoors only.
  • You may also want to check to see if there are cooling centers in your area.

As always, you should also consider checking on neighbors, especially those who may need assistance.

Power will be restored after the dangerous conditions have passed and once safety checks have been done for all the lines in that area. If there are a large number of people who have had their power shut off, then it may take multiple days before PG&E gets the power turned back on for everyone.

If you experience a loss due to extended power outages — such as the food in your fridge going bad — you can file a claim with the utility.

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