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How reliable is our electricity?

Uploaded: Jul 2, 2023

How reliable is our electricity? On average it’s not bad but in many places it’s getting worse and in a few places it’s downright terrible. Customers in PG&E territory are seeing more power outages and more outage-minutes, particularly in areas where the utility de-energizes circuits in order to prevent accidental ignitions that can lead to wildfires.

The chart below shows how many outages an average PG&E customer experienced each year. In 2022 there was less than one outage per customer per year on average. (1) That is not bad, but it is almost a 50% increase over 2021, and the average hides a very uneven distribution.

This chart shows the average number of outages per PG&E customer per year, which has been increasing. Source: CPUC Reliability Workshop, PG&E Presentation (2023)

The average outage-minutes a PG&E customer sees each year has also been steadily increasing, up almost 250% in just five years.

This chart shows the average number of outage-minutes per PG&E customer per year, which has been increasing. Source: CPUC Reliability Workshop, PG&E Presentation (2023)

More locally, let’s take a look at the Peninsula division of PG&E’s grid, which runs down the west side of the Bay from South San Francisco to Santa Cruz. The average outage-minutes per customer was twice as bad in 2021 compared to the five years prior.

Electric reliability plummeted in 2021 in PG&E’s Peninsula division. Source: PG&E 2021 Annual Electric Reliability Report

PG&E attributes much of the decline in reliability to a program called Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings (EPSS). In high fire-risk areas, PG&E has equipped power lines with an automatic shutoff capability that is enabled during certain weather conditions. When EPSS is enabled, the underlying circuit trips whenever a line is accidentally touched or faults. The circuit stays dead until it is inspected. This has resulted in thousands of multi-hour unplanned outages affecting over 750,000 customers in 2022 alone. (2)

Power lines in high fire-risk areas are enhanced with an automatic shutoff capability called Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings. This wildfire prevention mechanism is causing many outages in rural areas. Source: CPUC Reliability Workshop, PG&E Presentation (2023)

The urban areas where most of us live are not much affected by these “fast trip” outages. EPSS is installed only in high fire-risk or adjacent areas. The unplanned outages that urban residents experience are typically due to equipment failures or some type of animal, vegetation, or third party intrusion. When a Menlo Park reader reports that “This past Sunday evening (which was cool and windless), we lost electrical power for 3 hours in Menlo Park.", it was probably due to one of those events. When your power goes out, you can check PG&E’s outage map (or for Palo Alto, this outage map) for outage information, including the cause.

Sources of outages in 2022. SSource: CPUC Reliability Workshop, PG&E Presentation (2023)

PG&E does not share outage data on a city-by-city basis, but the data below for Palo Alto in 2021 indicate reasonable reliability for residents on average. Palo Alto Utilities spokeswoman Catherine Elvert adds that “There are no particularly identifiable areas in Palo Alto that are prone to power outages. Outages can occur for a variety of reasons, including animal or bird coming in conflict with the wires or equipment, downed trees or limbs, high winds, or equipment failure due to factors that affect underground or overhead performance.” I would expect data for most Peninsula cities to be similar, though worse in 2023 due to atmospheric rivers knocking down trees coupled with PG&E’s often slow response times. (3)

2021 reliability data for a selection of California utilities, with local providers highlighted. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

But that is not the whole story. Over half of PG&E territory is in high fire-risk areas, and 100% of power lines there are now EPSS-enabled. The resulting fast-trip outages have significantly impacted reliability in places west of 280 and in the hills of the East Bay, like La Honda, Half Moon Bay, and Mount Diablo.

Over half of PG&E territory is in high fire-risk areas. Source: CPUC Reliability Workshop, PG&E Presentation (2023)

Last year almost 2400 EPSS outages led to over two million (!) customer outages. Medical devices stopped working. Street lights went dark. Schools closed. Hospital procedures were postponed. Credit card readers ceased working. Elevators parked on the first floor. Public meetings were canceled. Food went bad. And this happened over and over in the hardest hit areas.

The impact of EPSS-triggered events (aka “fast trip” events) in 2022 was significant. Source: CPUC Reliability Workshop, Joint Parties Presentation (2023)

Disability advocate Connie Arnold weighed in during a March workshop on reliability held by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC): “This is a life and death issue for persons with disabilities…. It can mean the inability to even get out of bed (adjustable bed) or to breathe (ventilator).” Megan Somogyi of the Joint Local Government Coalition said the outages have “a massive on-the-ground impact that has imposed significant real-life burdens on customers.” John Kennedy, a Policy Advocate for Rural County Representatives of California, pleaded with the commissioners for relief: “Our communities can’t have another year of Fast Trip outages like we had in 2022.”

The pain is not spread evenly. 15% of the circuits that triggered last year experienced more than eight outages. The situation is so bad in some places that PG&E is touting “improved” data that shows certain circuits can go 1-2 months without an outage. No wonder Lori Parlin, El Dorado County supervisor, reports that residents are complaining that it is “like living in a third-world country.”

EPSS events have been causing significant outages in places like Clear Lake, Sonora, San Luis Obispo, and Mount Diablo, to the extent that PG&E is boasting when it can keep the power on for just one or two months. Source: CPUC Reliability Workshop, PG&E Presentation (2023)

The Enhanced Powerline Safety Shutoff program is unlikely to go away any time soon because it has been successful in reducing ignitions.

Source: CPUC Reliability Workshop, PG&E Presentation (2023)

But as Justin Hagler, a Senior Regulatory Analyst for California’s Public Advocate’s Office puts it, “The spectrum of conditions under which EPSS is enabled is vast…. Where is the balance point between reliability and safety?” Several speakers at the CPUC workshop emphasized that the steps PG&E is taking to mitigate the harm they are imposing on customers are insufficient. Many disabled people and vulnerable seniors do not know how to get help. Transportation and hotel options may not be readily available to people in wheelchairs. Richard Skaff, Executive Director for Designing Accessible Communities, says he is “appalled”. “They threw these Yeti batteries at us, that might keep a CPAP machine operating for a couple of hours, but not the other kind of major medical equipment or mobility equipment that has a lot greater electricity demand than what a Yeti 3000 can provide. And PGE was so pleased with that. $5M to buy all of those. That’s great. What did PG&E spend on its attorneys last year or the year before? … $250M?”

Rural governments, local power providers, and customer advocates are asking the CPUC to regulate these shutoffs and enforce a balance between fire mitigation and power reliability. PG&E for its part says it is working to reduce the frequency of these shutoffs by hardening lines and narrowing the triggering, and to limit their duration with better fault detection and circuit patrols.

The irony in all of this is that climate change is threatening the reliability of our power system just as we are relying more on electricity to reduce the burning of fossil fuels that is largely responsible for climate change. It’s not just wildfire mitigation that is jeopardizing our electricity supply. Drought is putting our hydropower at risk. High temperatures are worsening transmission losses. Greater demand is stressing our distribution grid. And more intense storms are knocking out power. Said one exasperated San Francisco businessman: “Yesterday the traffic lights were down and my cafe was out of business for three quarters of a day because there was an outage. The wind blows, the rains come, and the power goes off. … We can call them acts of God, but we have known for 30 years that these acts of God were going to increase through human action, and we didn’t prepare, so now we’re stuck… You have some big problems here to solve.”

The climate is changing and the consequences of that are becoming more tangible and more urgent. Corporations like PG&E are responding, but when the response is rushed they are bound to do damage along the way. Regulators like the CPUC have a responsibility to identify and mitigate these harms without unduly impeding progress. It is not easy.

Notes and References
1. This does not include “momentary” outages that last 5 minutes or less.

2. Some of you may be familiar with Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), which are planned outages announced days in advance of very dry and windy periods. Because of pressure from the CPUC, PSPS events are now less frequent, narrower in scope, and shorter in duration. As shown in the chart below, the Customer Minutes Interrupted (CMI) related to PSPS events (shown in orange) has plummeted in PG&E territory. The outage minutes caused by the newer fast-trip outages (EPSS) are shown in gray. EPSS events are measured in hours rather than the days that were typical of PSPS events, so overall outage duration is less.

Customer Minutes Interrupted by year for PG&E for PSPS events (orange) and EPSS events (gray). Source: CPUC Reliability Workshop, Public Advocates Office Presentation (2023)

However, the number of people impacted by the EPSS outages has soared to now exceed that of the PSPS events at their worst. The chart below shows the number of outages attributed to each program in each year.

Customer Account Outages by year for PG&E for PSPS events (orange) and EPSS events (gray). Source: CPUC Reliability Workshop, Public Advocates Office Presentation (2023)

The hope is that attention from the CPUC will push utilities to improve the EPSS program in much the same way that they improved the PSPS program.

3. Palo Alto has begun reporting reliability data in the Utilities Quarterly Update. (Yay!) Reliability data for 2021, 2022, and the first two quarters of 2023 are shown below. You can see how the storms in the first quarter of 2023 impacted reliability, and the year is only half over! What is impressive is how quickly Palo Alto resolved the many issues that the storm brought, keeping the minutes per interruption relatively stable. Palo Alto spokeswoman Catherine Elvert says: “Our operations crews were able to restore service to most customers in very quick order. In some cases, power was restored within 15 minutes and in other cases in which power poles were completely broken or lines detached, a matter of hours. I know some PG&E area customers who were without power for several days to more than a week.”

CIty of Palo Alto Utilities electricity reliability data through Q2 2023. Source: City of Palo Alto Utilities Quarterly Update Q2 2023

Current Climate Data (May 2023)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard

Some bike rides are tougher than others… Happy 4th! (Photo taken in South Palo Alto.)

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What is it worth to you?


Posted by KOhlson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jul 3, 2023 at 9:32 am

KOhlson is a registered user.

Nice data aggregation and analysis. Thanks for doing this.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Jul 3, 2023 at 10:01 am

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

Thank you for the article.

California's electric system is plagued by high prices, low reliability, and government mandates that are forcing us to put more expensive eggs in this already bursting at the seams basket.

It is especially infuriating that California is making it illegal to mitigate its lack of reliable electricity by banning gas appliances and even the occasionally used gas generator.

I would love it if somewhere in state government attention was paid to the practical realities of living here. Unfortunately our politicians are leading us on a pied piper parade towards their imagined green energy utopia, no matter how much it costs and how much residents have to suffer as a result.

Posted by Paul Clark, a resident of Danville,
on Jul 5, 2023 at 6:56 am

Paul Clark is a registered user.

Very comprehensive article. Here in Danville this past week, we had two successive outages that affected right around 4,000 homes in each instance.
They occurred the first time the area experienced high temperatures, so one has to assume that the failures were as a result of the combined stress on the system due to the high temperatures themselves and the increased load imposed by air conditioning. The first outage ran from late afternoon until well after midnight.
Luckily, we have one of those oft maligned gasoline engine-driven portable generators. At 3 kilowatts, It won't run the household, but it does allow us to have lights, and our means of communication ( your phones and computers don't work today without household power).
Although it's pure speculation, over the now 50 years we've lived here, we have seen PG&E's "performance" wane, and I would offer that it's probably that they don't have a robust maintenance and replacement program any longer because that costs them money they don't have. So much to say, running everything until it breaks is cheaper than scheduled replacement of aging transformers and the like.
Your article touches on the life-line issues these power losses portend. Fortunately although we are in our early 80's, we are not yet in need of medical devices that need electricity, but that day may come. My guess is that not unlike our water supply, our electrical grid hasn't kept pace with the massive increase in population that California has experienced. A system designed to service 20 million people, is now being asked to serve double that number. And the cognitive dissonance of our current "political leaders," who mindlessly see the need to "convert" all our energy needs to a system that is incapable of meeting the demand. Remember when you buy a Tesla, you are no longer able to go to the gas station to "fill it up," and a reliable source to charge it is not actually available to you. TG for our generator!

Posted by Michael, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows,
on Jul 5, 2023 at 7:58 am

Michael is a registered user.

I'm happier ever day with my decision to invest in battery backed solar a few years back. It continues to pay dividends in both stable cash flow for energy and more importantly reliability.

Posted by Will Radcliffe, a resident of Palo Alto Hills,
on Jul 5, 2023 at 10:41 am

Will Radcliffe is a registered user.

Correct information is all I ask. The recent 16 hour outage in the Palo Alto Hills area was reported as 100 customers. I guess that means the one person that pays the utilities ant the total number of people affected. Another source reported about 6,000 and the outage map showed it extended from El Camino to Skyline which has more than 100 houses. Where can we obtain accurate information? The difference is like Fox News and the Christian Science Monitor.

Posted by Mike Fischer, a resident of Meadow Park,
on Jul 5, 2023 at 12:24 pm

Mike Fischer is a registered user.

Thanks for a terrific and thorough explanation of what's going on. The most reliable power I have experienced (years ago) was in the City of Santa Clara, Silicon Valley Power. I would be interested in seeing how their numbers compare with the other providers, particularly in your, "2021 reliability data for a selection of California utilities...". Their engineering and management have always appeared to me to be top notch.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 5, 2023 at 8:02 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Will, the best place to look for detailed information about outages in Palo Alto is the utility's Twitter feed. Here is what it shows about an outage in the Palo Alto Hills on July 3.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 5, 2023 at 8:09 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Mike, Silicon Valley Power doesn't report reliability metrics using the IEEE standard that most other utilities use. So I don't know how comparable these numbers are, but here you go (for 2021):
Outage minutes per customer: 81.230
Outage frequency per customer: 0.710
Minutes per outage: 114.408
Number of customers: 58,701

I like the tabulated information SVP provides for outages and power quality issues. That is great transparency.

Posted by Ole Agesen, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Jul 6, 2023 at 8:49 pm

Ole Agesen is a registered user.

Some comments suggest unreliability of electricity (and by counterpoint reliability of methane supplies, though that is a false counterpoint). Their implicit claim is that we cannot shut down methane because it is a needed backup system when electricity goes out.

Have you ever run your refrigerator on methane? No, of course.

Imagine if the entire budget spent on gas distribution could instead be directed to increasing the reliability and safety of electricity transmission, distribution and clean production.

How much more reliable would the electricity grid become? How much more sustainable could our way of living become? How much cleaner could our air get? How many deaths avoided from air pollution?

This approach is doubling down, it is not by spending more money. It is spending our money smarter. Don't invest in gas. Invest in clean electricity. Invest in the future.

Welcome to the 21st century. We can do it. All of us.

Ole, happy in a 100 year old house, fully electric, not even a gas pipe.

Posted by Ronen, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle,
on Jul 8, 2023 at 11:36 am

Ronen is a registered user.

We've experienced two MULTI DAY outages this past year. PG&E is giving us an unacceptably bad levels of service.

That aside, there is no alternative but to electrify everything and eliminate fossil fuels from the system. Yes, that will cause some inconvenience during power outages (which can be mitigated with batteries), but it will help limit the devastating effects of climate change, something the “conservatives" among us pretend doesn't exist or are too selfish to care about.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Aug 8, 2023 at 7:51 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

This past Sunday at 8.19 am a single vehicle crash with a power poll brought Sunday morning traffic and over a thousand local customers into problems. Traffic lights were out and Charleston Center was out for 12 hours.

For many businesses in Charleston Center, a weekend day has more customers than a weekday. Piazzas still has almost empty refrigerated shelves and had to throw out a ton of food. I suspect the other food businesses had to throw out food and the other businesses had a hard time doing business. Can't say anything about the charging station for EVs.

I think the reliability of electricity is a big issue. I think places like Piazzas would say the same.

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