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.


  • Megan Calfas
  • Joe Dworetzky

    Joe Dworetzky is pursuing a second career as a Masters student in Stanford’s Journalism program. He practiced law in Philadelphia for more than 35 years. He represented private and governmental clients in hundreds of financial restructurings and commercial disputes. He served as City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia under Mayor Ed Rendell and in that capacity, he led a 150-lawyer department responsible for all the city’s legal matters. From 2009 to 2013 Joe served as one of five members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission with responsibility for the overall management of the city’s 250 public schools. He moved to San Francisco in 2011 and began writing fiction and pursuing a lifelong interest in cartooning. His first novel was published in 2013 by Indigo Sea Press and his short stories and creative non-fiction have appeared in dozens of literary magazines and journals. In 2018 he came to Stanford University as a fellow in the Distinguished Careers Institute, and his studies in that program kindled a passionate interest in journalism. He served as a staff writer and editorial cartoonist for The Stanford Daily and his reporting and editorial cartooning frequently appear in the Peninsula Press. In the summer of 2019, Joe worked on the metro desk of the L.A. Times as an intern. His wife, Amy Banse, is the managing director and head of funds for Comcast Ventures, San Francisco. They have four children ranging from 19 to 35 and live in San Francisco.

  • SeiMi Chu
Scroll to Top