Sociology researcher seeks solutions for Public Safety Power Shutoffs

New paper shows 'microgrids' could reduce impact of outages, if regulatory challenges can be resolved

During an Public Safety Power Shutoff, there’s no electricity flowing in through utility power lines. Microgrids could provide localized energy generation to keep the lights on. Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.

As climate change intensifies drought and heat across California, it's one of the key factors setting the stage for severe wildfires that can have devastating impacts on communities. To combat these growing risks, the state’s electric utilities are increasingly implementing Public Safety Power Shutoffs: intentional power outages that de-energize power lines when weather conditions, like strong winds, threaten to damage equipment and spark a wildfire.

While these measures can help to reduce wildfire risk, the outages they cause are disruptive and potentially even dangerous, says Les Guliasi, a researcher in the UC Santa Cruz Sociology Department, who has decades of utility industry experience. According to Guliasi, Public Safety Power Shutoffs were originally envisioned as a measure of last resort, but they’re now becoming a more common default strategy for utilities. And he’s concerned about the effects that more frequent power outages could have on local economies and communities. 

“We all depend on electricity to manage our daily lives,” he said. “Any disruption in the delivery of electricity is a big concern.”

That’s why Guliasi has been following the proceedings of the California Public Utilities Commission as they seek to reduce the impacts of Public Safety Power shutoffs. His observations were recently published in the journal Energy Research and Social Science. Guliasi is particularly interested in the potential for new “microgrid” technologies to limit the extent and effects of future outages. 

Microgrids are localized energy generation resources that allow individual buildings, or even whole communities, to keep the lights on when there’s no electricity flowing in through utility power lines. For example, a building with solar panels, battery storage, and a backup generator could reliably produce its own electricity during a Public Safety Power Shutoff. Some key facilities, such as hospitals and fire stations, already have this capacity, and technological advances are now making it possible to deploy at larger scales. 

Microgrids offer an advantage because they operate very differently from traditional energy delivery systems, where large amounts of energy are produced remotely and transmitted over long distances to reach consumers. A key challenge of traditional systems is that large numbers of people across wide geographic regions are all depending on the same energy source, and any interruptions of transmission affect everyone. Guliasi believes it’s time for a change.  

Les Guliasi outdoors in the Bay Area
Sociology researcher Les Guliasi.

“The current energy delivery system is really still a relic of the 19th and 20th centuries,” he said. “If we can have the production of electricity more localized, it gives the end-user greater control over both the production and consumption of their electricity.”

The State of California started to get behind this concept in 2018, when Senate Bill 1339 directed the California Public Utilities Commission to facilitate the commercialization of microgrids. Then, in December 2019, the state’s largest electric utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), presented a plan for deploying a microgrid enablement program before the next fire season. But Guliasi’s report details how the proceedings hit a snag from there. 

Complications arose primarily around how the energy would be produced to supply the proposed microgrids. Environmental, social justice, and consumer advocates wanted to see energy generated using only wind, solar, and battery storage, which was not a stipulation of PG&E’s original plan. And Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) providers—local governmental organizations tasked with choosing energy sources on behalf of their communities—also objected to PG&E making decisions about how to power microgrids within CCA service areas.

In response to these challenges, PG&E withdrew their microgrid plan and instead contracted mobile diesel generators as a backup power source for the 2020 fire season. Diesel fuel has harmful environmental and health effects, so Guliasi considers this outcome a breakdown of the California Public Utilities Commission's decision-making process, resulting in a “lose-lose” situation for all parties involved. 

Analysis cited in Guliasi’s article showed that a “hybrid” approach to microgrids—combining solar power, battery storage, and backup generators powered by either natural gas or renewable biogas—could have provided reliable backup power in a much cleaner way than diesel generators. Guliasi hopes to see solutions like this deployed for future fire seasons, if the regulatory process can be navigated more successfully. 

Guliasi hopes his paper will offer a cautionary tale to help regulators, utilities, and stakeholders alike see beyond all-or-nothing approaches and instead keep an eye out for solutions that balance short-term needs for energy resilience with longer-term decarbonization goals. 

“I just want public officials to pause and think about what they should do to avoid unintended consequences—like the further deployment of more diesel, or individual homeowners and businesses using gasoline or propane generators—when there are other practical alternatives,” he said. “There’s an old saying about how the perfect becomes the enemy of the good, and that’s really what happened here.”