When it comes to residential power usage patterns, the “days of the week cease to have meaning,” says economist Steve Cicala.
COVID and climate: We commute less but use more power
For all the climate “benefits” touted as the silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a new working paper from the United States that claims some US$6 billion was spent on additional residential electricity from April through July of this year – and it carries a modest caution that the work-from-home life may not be as climate-friendly as we think.
“The relative energy intensity of heating and cooling the entire homes of employees rather than a single office suggests that the future of working from home is not as green as one might think based on reduced commuting alone,” says economist Steve Cicala at Tufts University.
Cicala’s paper looks at how U.S. electricity usage patterns changed because of COVID-19. Basically, he found a 12 percent decrease in power used in the commercial sector and a 14 percent drop in industrial power. Those numbers alone weren’t all that different from patterns found in the 2008 economic crisis, and they’re consistent with expectations for any economic downturn.
But the residential patterns were different, with a 16 percent increase in residential use during work hours. In fact, the difference between energy use on weekends – typically much higher than the weekdays when people are at work or school – essentially disappeared because more Americans stayed home and worked there.
The new data were reflected in real-time energy consumption reports available from Innowatts, a Houston-based utility analytics company. They reflect the total hourly residential consumption from 2019-May 2020 in Texas with the variations for heating and cooling removed, since so much energy use is linked to the season and climate.
Cicala also relied on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), which reports monthly electricity consumption broken down into residential, commercial and industrial use for most U.S. providers.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, in the prescient words of Morrissey and Street (1988), ‘Everyday
Is Like Sunday,'” said Cicala of Texas. “The morning upticks at 7 a.m. are gone, with residential consumption almost 2GW lower as the day begins an hour or so later. With everyone home, midday residential electricity during the work week is 3-4 GW higher than normal, with distinct peaks at 1 p.m., 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.
“Friday and Saturday evening peaks are no lower than other days of the week, as days of the week cease to have meaning.”
So if you’re not going out on weekend nights and you’ve come to feel that what day of the week this is has lost meaning? You’re not alone, but that also has implications – at least in terms of electricity usage alone – for what that may mean in terms of energy-related emissions moving forward. That’s especially true given the need to transition away from fossil fuels.
“As industrial and commercial activity recovers, working from home has the potential to increase emissions from the power sector on net. In the same way that dense cities are more energy efficient than suburbs, it requires more energy to heat and cool entire homes than the offices and schools in which people usually congregate during the day,” said Cicala.
“A mixed work format based on part-time work from home entails higher power demand, as both offices and homes will be simultaneous drawing additional power. This is especially important given that more than one third of firms that have adopted remote work believe it will continue beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.”