PG&E power outage plan kept people in the dark

STATE AFFAIRS: Lack of communication on power outage contributed to unnecessary stress, confusion.

Illustration of person with laptop in the dark
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

Every fall, something seems to go awry in Northern California — free speech protests two years ago and the air quality debacle last fall, in recent memory — and this year was no different, thanks to PG&E throwing everyone for a loop with its will-they-won’t-they power outage plan. 

Theoretically speaking, a planned power outage was a good idea. The dry autumn winds combined with sparks from power lines brought catastrophe to the area last year, so it was smart of PG&E to proactively try to avoid a similar disaster by shutting off the power when the fire risk was at its peak. But the execution? Absolutely horrendous. 

For starters, PG&E couldn’t nail down a definitive time to shut off power. As first announced Monday, an outage was supposed to begin at midnight Wednesday. It got pushed to noon Thursday and then to a window between 2-4 p.m., finally landing on 8 p.m. Thursday. To make matters worse, PG&E’s website was down for hours, courtesy of extremely high traffic to the site. The company should’ve known that the outage would drive significantly more people to use the website for timely updates; failing to prepare for that was a huge mistake on PG&E’s part. 

PG&E’s negligence in deciding and communicating the duration of the outage contributed to an unnecessary bout of fearmongering and mass hysteria, with people flooding their local grocery stores to hastily buy nonperishable food and flashlights. Not only were people given just a few day’s notice, but they also had no idea how long they’d be out of power.

It’s not like the outage affected a tiny portion of the population. A good 800,000 customers were affected — meaning about 2.5 million people, since a “customer” is just the location that receives power — including UC Berkeley. Getting a few days off from school was a welcome relief for many students, but the reality is that campus unnecessarily lost an entire day of operation. 

And what about the more vulnerable communities in the area? Losing power is a critical matter for individuals who depend on electric assistive technology every day. Hospitals have to plan in advance if there’s a power outage. Homeless shelters need to figure out how to manage their resources without power. It’s disappointing that PG&E assumed it could shuffle the planned outage time without inducing many repercussions. 

On the bright side, campus seems to have learned from its failings last year and kept up a constant stream of communication with members of the community. It’s great that campus proactively chose to cancel classes, rather than keeping students, faculty and staff on campus during dire conditions. But frankly, that undue stress could have easily been prevented and shouldn’t have existed in the first place. 

Disaster prevention isn’t a one-and-done affair — it requires an immense amount of preparation and communication. Here’s to hoping that PG&E will prioritize that next time we come across a possible outage. 

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2019 opinion editor, Revati Thatte.