Rolling blackouts hit California: What you need to know

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8 p.m. update: PG&E released a statement saying the California ISO had notified it that the state’s power grid had enough energy to avoid any rolling blackouts Sunday night, despite warning parts of the Bay Area earlier that blackouts were likely. “We strongly urge our customers to take action and conserve their energy usage over the next few days,” said Laurie Giammona, senior vice president and chief customer officer for PG&E.

California temperatures soared to record-breaking highs over the weekend, leading to a series of unexpected power outages and a Stage 3 Electrical Emergency that left millions of residents in the dark.

As power grids throughout the Bay Area continue to be inundated by the demand, rolling blackouts are expected to hit the region. Here’s what you need to know:

Why was a Stage 3 Emergency issued? 

A Stage 3 Emergency is declared “when demand begins to outpace supply,” and grid operators need to tap existing electricity reserves in order to keep up and restore balance, according to the California Independent System Operator. It means that the ISO is unable to meet the minimum contingency reserve requirements, and loss of power is either imminent or already in progress. On Saturday, the abrupt loss of a 470-megawatt power plant as well as nearly 1,000 megawatts of wind power ultimately necessitated the emergency order, which was announced at 6:28 p.m. and lifted at 6:48 p.m. as wind resources increased.

Why is the power being turned off?

Since much of the region’s power comes from solar and wind energy, and people usually use their electricity for air conditioning and light when the sun goes down, the electrical grid becomes strained and faces the risk of shutting down entirely. Though rotating power outages are inconvenient and uncomfortable, especially in the time of a pandemic, they allow California utilities to manage the overwhelming demand as they work to restore power.

Will I know when my power is going out? 

Not necessarily. When CAISO instructs PG&E to cut off power, it may happen very suddenly. “Rotating outages are not Public Safety Power Shutoffs, which are conducted during specific high fire threat conditions. Rotating outages are called by CAISO, and power utilities are required to act when demand on the statewide electric grid is expected to exceed available energy supply,” PG&E explains on its website.

If the power shut-off is due to wildfire danger, however, you should receive prior notice. According to the Public Safety Power Shutoff program, people should expect an early warning notification from their utility provider prior to any shutoffs. Power companies are also expected to provide ongoing updates. Sign up for alerts from your utility provider here.

Can PG&E shut off my power without telling me?

No. This year, PG&E said it would update its alert system to provide customers with more detail earlier on regarding what to expect in the event of an outage. The utility said it will release information in three phases:

– Advance notification (Two days, one day, and just before electricity is turned off)
– During the public safety outage
– Once power has been restored

If you are a customer with PG&E, it is important to update your contact information so you can receive these alerts. If you are not a customer, or your landlord or property manager is receiving notifications on your behalf, you can still sign up to get updates by zip code. Call 1-877-9000-PGE or text “ENROLL” to 97633.

How can I prepare for a power outage?

If you don’t already have a personal safety plan in place, now is the time to make one for yourself as well as any other members of your household, including pets. Build or restock your emergency supply kit, which should include food, water, flashlights, batteries, a radio, first aid supplies as well as cash. Make a list of emergency contact numbers and again, make sure your own contact information is up to date with your local energy provider. Portable phone chargers or other backup charging methods are also a good idea. If you own a backup generator, check to make sure it is ready to safely operate. Additionally, plan for any medical needs.

For up to date information, check the PSPS updates page and outage map frequently.

Where can I seek refuge if I have no power?

Amid the pandemic, places that would normally provide relief during a heat wave such as pools, libraries and community centers are now out of the question. At this time, cooling centers are available in the following Bay Area counties: Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Solano. It is unclear if more are expected to open in the days ahead.

The CDC recommends contacting your local health department to locate an air-conditioned shelter in your area. PG&E has also set up a cooling center locator here. San Francisco officials advise people to stay home and “that if the heat indoors gets intolerable to go outside to a shady place where they can stay cool and distant from other people.”

SFGATE reached out to the California Office of Emergency Services as well as the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management and will update this article with more information.

How long will the power outages last?

Power shutoffs will continue for as long as extreme weather conditions pose a potential fire risk, reports PG&E. The prolonged heat wave is expected to last through at least Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. From there, the California ISO will decide whether to continue the rolling outages on a day-to-day basis, said spokesperson Anne Gonzales. Utility companies will be required to act when demand on the statewide electric grid is expected to exceed available energy supply.

“We’re dealing with weather, clouds, wildfires … these are quickly evolving situations, quickly changing,” added Gonzales.

Amanda Bartlett is an SFGATE digital reporter. Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @byabartlett

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