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Smart Meters, Dumb Blackouts?

Smart load limits could help to keep the lights on through California’s wildfire season.

Today’s post was co-authored with Duncan Callaway.

California’s 2020 wildfire season is off to a blazing start. The burning ring of fire around the Bay Area is now mostly contained thanks to the super-human efforts of our firefighters. But we’re not out of the woods. Not even close. 

Although the current mega-fires were started by lightning, the most destructive fires in recent years have been caused by power lines or other electrical equipment.

One way to mitigate this kind of wildfire risk? Cut the power supply when the red flags go up. As we write this blog, the flags are up.

California’s largest utility is now warning of potential Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) to reduce the possibility that power lines and other equipment could spark new fires. Back in 2018, PG&E was sharply criticized for not de-energizing power lines prior to the devastating Camp Fire. Since then, utilities have been much quicker to call PSPS events: 

These De-Energization Data show a striking increase in PSPS activity.

These PSPS events have been controversial because power outages can impose high costs on homes and businesses. Last year’s outage costs were estimated at $10 billion. That’s a big number! But over time, these costs should come down as we adapt and adjust. 

There’s been plenty of discussion about adaptation via investments in back-up generators, micro-grids, battery storage. But what about re-thinking the PSPS events themselves? So far, PSPS events have been implemented using a blunt tool: planned outages.

PG&E 2019 PSPS map. Blue areas = planned outages
You know it’s an emergency when Cheeseboard Pizza goes dark.

This all-or-nothing approach leaves much to be desired. Last year, we were frothing our lattes and using our clothes drier while our neighbors a few blocks away went days without power. Ever since we’ve been wondering whether there’s a better way. 

Utilities in other parts of the world with frequent outages have been experimenting with better ways. One intriguing example can be found in South Africa. When there’s not enough supply available, this utility sends SMS messages to inform customers that they will be limiting load. Smart meters are used to detect which households are consuming below the prescribed limit. Households that comply remain connected. Non-compliers get remotely switched off (presumably with a chance to get back on when they reduce their demand).

Some California customers might balk at a request to limit load for days on end. But a “please limit-your-load” alert should be much preferred to this alert on your phone:  

Could load limits help California keep more essential loads connected through PSPS events? This depends on (1) whether there’s any power available to ration during PSPS events and (2) whether California’s smart metering infrastructure is up to the task. To get to the bottom of these questions, we’ll offer our spitball take. And then we’ll invite you, brilliant blog readers, to tell us if we’re on the wrong (or right) track.

1. Is there power to ration during PSPS events?

Let’s start with a cartoon illustration of how the grid is configured: Customers connect to distribution lines that connect to substations. On the other side of those substations sit transmission lines that criss-cross long distances to bring in power from remote sources.  

In distribution systems, there is typically only one path between a customer and their substation. If a distribution line is de-energized due to wildfire risk, there will be no power to ration. Everyone on that line is just 100% out of power.

On the other hand, in transmission systems, there are usually multiple paths from point A to point B (i.e., the system is “meshed”). If one transmission line needs to be taken out of service, but there is an alternative path for power to flow, we can still keep substations powered, along with the distribution systems they serve. If that alternative path can’t support all the power people are demanding, rationing could help to keep the proverbial lights on.  

So our question is…are PSPS events sometimes/often caused by de-energizing transmission lines?  

We think that transmission is definitely at play, though we don’t know how much of it is in meshed parts of the grid. Back in January, PG&E wrote that about 138,000 accounts in Northern California could have kept their lights on if they had installed backup generation at their substations. This means PG&E considered the distribution systems serving those customers to be safe. Furthermore, PG&E has reserved about 450 MW of temporary backup generation to keep customers powered in the 2020 fire season. Again, any distribution systems they power with those MW must not pose a risk if PG&E intends to power them. It must be risky transmission lines that are putting those customers in PSPS territory.

 2. How smart are California smart meters?

Even if there is potential for using load limits to keep essential loads afloat through PSPS events, this idea is not worth pursuing if the implementation costs are prohibitive. So this brings us to the next question. Could we leverage investments we’ve already made in smart meters and customer notification systems to implement load limits at relatively low cost?

We know that California utilities can remotely turn smart meters on and off. We also know that utilities can alert customers when a power outage is imminent. One of us is so excited about AMI that he’s read the Landis and Gyr manual for our PG&E meter cover-to-cover. This manual suggests our smart meter could have a “soft fuse” function. This would allow PG&E to program the meter to cut us off if our demand exceeds an amount that can be remotely adjusted. The meter could also restore power periodically to detect whether we’ve turned off enough things to keep us below the prescribed limit. 

The upshot? With some software development, existing AMI infrastructure could be up to the emergency load limiting task.

What are we waiting for?

Load limits are not the most elegant approach to allocating limited power supply. Compared to real-time pricing, load limiting is a blunt instrument. But it could offer a relatively low-cost improvement over the on-off switch we currently flip when PSPS events are called. Load limiting could complement some of the other investments utilities are already pursuing under the banner of wildfire adaptation, such as microgrids and grid sectionalization. It could also come in handy when electricity demand exceeds supply for other reasons, at least until we’ve made more progress on incorporating demand response. 

We are part of a larger research team that is working to understand how power system investments and operations should respond to mounting wildfire risk in California. Load limits seem like potentially low hanging fruit in this respect. If you disagree, tell us why! And if you share our nascent enthusiasm, let us know!  If this idea has potential, our team is game to help figure out how to implement it.

Keep up with Energy Institute blogs, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas.

Suggested citation: Fowlie, Meredith. “Smart Meters, Dumb Blackouts?” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, September 8, 2020,


42 thoughts on “Smart Meters, Dumb Blackouts? Leave a comment

  1. In developing countries [South Asia] home wiring is often segregated by AC phases [an EE term not English meaning] so that when there are shortages only certain phase of the supply is cutoff. So people may have some lifeline-type lighting, refrigerator, fan or an AC unit, stay live, while the oven, clothes dryer, most AC units, etc are cutoff.

    Forced demand management using the Smart meters is a nice first step.

  2. “ Smart load limits could help to keep the lights on through California’s wildfire season.“

    So could ending the ridiculous policies which causes them and end up hurting the poor. The world will end the use of fossil fuels either way and about the same time for the same reasons people stopped buying horses, steam engines, and typewriters. California’s harmful policies are simply meaningless virtue signaling at taxpayer expense.

  3. I worked at Landis & Gyr in the 80s and I remember talking about Load Management/Load Shedding. 40 years later we are still talking about it? Back then the idea was to start by turning off water heaters. With technology available today, such as IoT, 5G, Smart Panels, why do we still have problems?

  4. Dear Meredith and Duncan,

    Thank you for your thoughtful post.

    I too raise my hand as a nascent enthusiast and wanted to provide a dispatch from SoCal.

    As Severin Borenstein pointed out in a previous Energy Institute post, CAISO threw the switch on rolling blackouts (outage type #1) during the WEEKEND of August 14, in the midst of Covid-19 (which, by the way, has reduced overall load). The culprit appeared to be tripped natural gas plants and a bad transmission line, but that State 3 alert came very, very suddenly. There were fires occurring at the time, yet I saw no evidence of PSPS’s (outage type #2) in SCE and PG&E territory (I checked!). I live in Culver City, where A/C is an exception (and non-existent in my house). We survived the weekend with no “rolling blackouts”, but in a true demonstration that the Utility Gods have a sense of humor we were hit by a 2-hour localized outage (outage type #3) in my neighborhood.

    This past weekend was also plenty of heat and outage fun. First, the City of LA hit an all-time temperature high at 121 degrees in Woodland Hills. Second, CAISO issued a Stage 2 alert (i.e. we might have to go to rolling blackouts), but ultimately did not resort to a Stage 3 alert. Rolling blackouts were avoided in IOU territories (although ironically there were rolling blackouts in some of the publicly-owned utility territories (e.g. Glendale Water and Power)). We escaped! Well, not quite as last night our air-conditionless house was hit by a 45 minute localized outage (outage type #3)———again. And curiously, with tens of fires (and the threat of more) blazing throughout the state I would have thought that the IOU’s might have called some PSPS’s (outage type #2), given their enormous liability. I checked SCE’s web site daily over the weekend and saw no PSPS’s declared or “considered”. A quick look on this, a markedly cooler morning, shows that SCE is considering PSPS’s for 6 different areas covering 65,000 customers——-hmmmm. I note also that PG&E isn’t thinking about pulling the PSPS trigger, but has actually done so starting last night, and covering some 170,000 customers—–with most PSPS outages expected for 48 hours.

    It’s a new world, and has been so for awhile. Virtually every utility has a mission of providing safe, reliable, and affordable electricity. I question whether the top-down natural monopoly system we have in California is providing any of the safe, reliable, and affordable features in adequate measure. Yes, let’s get to the electricity system we want, and one which can address the climate changed world we live in.

  5. I’m bullish on the emergence of smart panels which provide intelligent load shedding and can also help shape better consumer management of resources. I don’t work for any of the vendors but I believe that local utilities and aggregators could begin to incentivize the use of smart panels. They require investment and infrastructure but they also allow the consumer to be part of the solution without extreme measures. I like the idea of communicating and alerting consumers to when conservation is called for; it’s a win-win. Now, we just need to connect these signals to the control systems; panels should be part of the toolkit.

  6. With strict load limiting, I could foresee some immediate issues of inequity. Lower income households with less efficient appliances and insulation might fall over whatever the utility “limit” is and be shut off, while the utility they receive from this energy is most likely equivalent or lower than that of more efficient, higher income households. I love the enthusiasm and think this is smart approach in general for navigating future potential PSPS, but there would definitely need to be some layers to load limiting to ensure that these potential inequities aren’t reinforced during these events.

  7. “This all-or-nothing approach leaves much to be desired. Last year, we were frothing our lattes and using our clothes drier while our neighbors a few blocks away went days without power.”

    What are we waiting for? Meredith, your proposal seems to be we should force everyone to use less electricity to have enough for anyone. Effectiveness aside, whether it’s acceptable in a social-justice frame of reference is questionable. If we accept the idea that access to electricity is an essential public good, that everyone should have equal access, rich or poor, the burden of your approach will fall predominantly on the poor. It might be compared to a flat income tax: for the poor to be forced to use 30% less electricity makes life disproportionately more difficult that it does for couples with a six-figure income.

    But let’s assume this subtractive strategy will be most effective at reducing the risk of wildfires, and to have enough electricity for everyone, we will impose an “energy tax” corresponding to a community’s average income tax bracket. Those in areas where residents are taxed in a 37% bracket will be charged at a rate 37% higher than it is now. For those in impoverished areas, where household income is below the standard deduction (~$12,000), electricity is free.

    Let’s propose that approach to the clothes-drier/latte-frothing community, and see how far we get.

    Ironically, the people who feel climate change is a serious problem are those most responsible for it. The big-energy consumers, they’re the ones supporting solar panels on every roof, and renewable energy in general. Is there any reason to believe Gavin Newsom has turned up the thermostat in his home to 78ºF, as he’s asking other Californians to do? Or at all?

    • The problem isn’t rationing a total amount of electricity–it’s first deciding whether rationing or total curtailment is needed, and if rationing, then how is the limited line capacity to be rationed. If its total curtailment, the only practical answer is distributing energy resources, and the only practical way to do that while also addressing climate change is small renewables and storage (including using EVs). If it’s rationing limited capacity, the problem can’t be solved by building more centralized generation because the needed transmission capacity is what caused the problem in the first place. So again, we should be looking at decentralizing generation, which again leads to renewables and storage, perhaps on a larger scale. (Undergrounding is a boondoggle that we shouldn’t even discuss. The required undergrounding would increase PG&E’s rates by more than 50%.) Decentralizing has an additional benefit–we can target rates geographically so that those who are creating the most risk by living in the urban wildfire interface (UWI) can also pay the costs they are causing.

      • What about allowing businesses of meaningful / significant load to isolate and turn on emergency generators ?

        It doesn’t add to the subtractive game passively but, instead, provides a guarantee for customers to keep critical loads running, and, at the same time drops overall demand on the grid.

        • “What about allowing businesses of meaningful / significant load to isolate and turn on emergency generators ?

          It doesn’t add to the subtractive game passively but, instead, provides a guarantee for customers to keep critical loads running, and, at the same time drops overall demand on the grid.”

          You’re joking, right? One hour’s worth of emissions produced about ten times the emissions of energy from a natural gas plant.

          The answer, of course, is to dump all of their stupid regulatory nonsense. Solar and batteries have been declining in price exponentially for over 60 years, and are within 6-10 years of being the cheapest reliable 24×7 power source on the planet in most populated regions. Strip away all of the incentives, taxes, and regulations and do you know wha will happen? First, the lights will stop going out. Then, the world will ditch fossil fuels faster than if government tries to force it for the same reasons people ditched horses, typewriters, and steam engines.

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