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PG&E Shutoffs: What to Know About Power Outages in the Bay Area

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PG&E power lines
PG&E cut power to tens of thousands of Californians in 2019 during extremely windy and dry conditions.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Updated Aug. 17 2021

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During a wildfire, there are a few reasons your power might go out, including planned outages determined by your utility company or power grid operator, and unplanned outages.

How will I know about a planned shutoff in my area?

To be notified of a planned shutoff in your area — what PG&E calls a “public safety power shutoff” — update your contact information with PG&E. You can also call them at (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.

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 and 48 hours beforehand. There should also be follow-up messages a few hours before a shutoff begins and again during the shutoff.

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

How can I prepare for a power shutoff?

After an alert about a potential power shutoff, PG&E suggests expecting 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, if possible, you might consider staying with family or friends during the outage to pool resources. If you rely on power for medical needs, you may want to stay with a family member or friend who has power.

Preparing for an emergency takes time and money — something many of us have in short supply. During planned shutoffs, PG&E opens daytime, drop-in Community Resource Centers, or CRCs, offering ADA-accessible restrooms and hand-washing stations, medical equipment and device charging, Wi-Fi, bottled water, snacks, air-conditioning or heating, seating and ice. Search for a resource center in your county here.

Disabled and older people can call 211 or text "PSPS" to 211211 to access local health and social services including medical support, shelter and food. Support is available in multiple languages.

For those with more resources, consider buying two sets of the items listed below and coordinating with a neighbor in need.

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.)
  • Talk to your doctor in advance about how to prepare with medications or mobility needs.
  • 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. (PG&E's Portable Battery Program provides free backup portable batteries for those with life-assisting electric medical equipment who also are enrolled in their Medical Baseline Program and California Alternate Rates for Energy or Family Electric Rate Assistance programs, and who live in high fire-threat districts. Those who rely on power to live independently can access portable backup batteries, hotel accommodations, accessible transportation and food vouchers through the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers’ Disability Disaster Access and Resources program.)
  • 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.

What should I 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 comes up. Do not call 911 unless it's an emergency. Additionally, infrastructure such as traffic lights may be affected — so proceed with caution. San José 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; ice is available free at your county’s Community Resource Center.
  • 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.

Why are these PG&E public safety power shutoffs happening?

California's 2020 wildfire season was the state's biggest on record, with more than 4 million acres burned.

The previous record was set just two years ago and included the deadliest wildfire in state history — the Camp Fire — which swept through the community of Paradise and killed 85 people.

That fire was started by PG&E power lines amid strong winds and tinder-dry conditions. To guard against new wildfires and new liability, in 2019 the utility began preemptive power shutoffs when conditions are exceptionally dangerous.

Also in 2019, the California Public Utilities Commission approved rules for how the state's major utilities should preemptively shut off the power during times of high fire danger. However, some utilities, such as San Diego Gas and Electric, had been shutting off the power to help prevent fires for years earlier.

In 2020, Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said the utility should find other ways to prevent its equipment from starting fires in windy conditions instead of planned outages.

"PG&E's had three years, and they've been working fairly diligently, to put in durable, resilient transmission and distribution lines, and they have not completed that task," she said.

How are shutoffs different from rolling blackouts?

Sometimes Californians also lose power because of strains on the system. The California Independent System Operator (ISO) manages the delicate balance of power supply and demand on the state’s electrical grid and can order utilities to cut power to customers as it did

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

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

This story has been updated. Check the PG&E resource page for the latest updates. 

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