Off the Grid: An immersive 360 video dramatization of the PG&E power outages


This 360 video dramatizes a fictional evening in October 2019 set in Healdsburg, CA, when PG&E turned out the lights. Reported and anecdotal experiences have been combined into composite characters to demonstrate the big and small impacts shut-offs have had and may continue to have as these shut-offs persist in increasingly dry California.

Although the PG&E shut-off policy was called “inadequate” and a “massive failure” by California state officials in early 2020, PG&E announced it would continue similar shutoff practices for up to the next ten years while it improves its infrastructure. The utility company does plan to decrease the range of affected areas and the numbers of power shut offs.

The fall of 2019 brought PG&E unprecedented power outages, uncontained wildfires, and massive forced evacuations, problems that would strain any utility. And there was the additional challenge: PG&E was undergoing the largest bankruptcy of a public utility in history.

More on how this project was produced: Off the Grid: A 360 immersive experience of the PG&E power outages

In early October, the hot crackle of fire season in northern California arrived, with heavy winds predicted. These were similar conditions to those that led to massive, deadly wildfires in prior years, most disastrously with the Camp Fire in 2018 when the town of Paradise suffered irreparable damage and 85 people died. Sparks from PG&E’s equipment, blown into the crispy tinder of climate-changed vegetation, were blamed.

PG&E hoped to avoid a new round of wildfire claims in 2019 by preemptively turning off power in high risk areas when high winds threatened. On Oct. 9, PG&E implemented a series of Public Safety Power Shutoffs, as the power outages were called, and almost a million homes were “de-energized.” In the hot light of public scrutiny that followed, PG&E’s planning and execution were excoriated. California’s Governor Gavin Newsom accused PG&E of “greed and mismanagement.”

The reality of Public Safety Power Shutoffs quickly arrived, with households left in the dark for days at a time. Many Californians experienced the inconvenience of losing power for an extended period, but some had medical conditions that made them dependent on electric-driven medical devices. For those people, the shut-offs were potentially life-threatening.

Resources: PG&E, California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services

PG&E officials sent out notifications 24 to 48 hours ahead of time through telephone calls, text messages and emails to people who would get their power cut.  Additional outreach was conducted for those who were enrolled in the assistance program, Medical Baseline.

This program was designed to help residential customers who have special energy needs. It charges a lower rate on the customers’ monthly energy bills and sends out extra notifications to those who are affected by the power cut.

However, not everyone got the notifications they needed to be prepared for such outages.