The COVID-19 pandemic has given us insight into how working from home is changing electricity demand and what that could mean for Americans’ utility bills. The picture it has painted so far is not a pretty one, especially for those who already struggle to meet their needs.
The transition to remote work is changing our energy system in ways that could deepen racial and economic inequality in the United States. Working from home shifts energy costs from employers to workers. This burden is greater for people who live in older, less efficient homes.
“I was freezing in my house in the winter and trying to work from the kitchen or burning in my house in the summer,” said Destenie Nock, assistant professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. The edge. She lives in a century-old home in Pittsburgh that she says isn’t as well insulated as newer builds, which became more evident when she worked from home after the pandemic hit in 2020.
Then in the summer, she learns that a neighbor passed out at her house during a heat wave. The air conditioner was broken and the neighbor didn’t have the funds at the time to fix it. “It was a very clear connection to how lack of energy use can lead to really important health outcomes,” says Nock, who is also director of the Energy, Equity and Sustainability (EES) group at Carnegie. Mellon.
How Lockdowns Affect Energy Use
Nock and a team of researchers set out to study how pandemic-induced lockdowns affect how people use electricity in their homes. Once-predictable patterns have changed, they discovered. And these changes have already had disparate impacts on people based on race and income. Some of these issues could persist if working from home is here to stay.
Nock and his fellow researchers analyzed smart meter data from thousands of homes and businesses in Arizona and Illinois — two states representative of the hottest and coldest parts of the United States — from January 2019 to April 2020. As offices and other commercial buildings closed and used less during the pandemic, they found that residential electricity consumption increased by about 5% as many people spent more time at home. Collectively, Americans paid $6 billion more on their home electric bills from April to July 2020 than they would have before the pandemic shutdowns, according to a separate National Bureau of Economic Research study.
Low-income households and communities of color experienced the greatest increase in electricity consumption, Nock and his co-authors found in their research. In Arizona, where the disparities were steeper, electricity use jumped almost 10% for low-income non-white people, twice the increase in residential electricity use as a whole.
One likely explanation is that people with less money tend to live in older homes, with poorer insulation, less efficient heating and cooling systems, and older, more energy-intensive appliances. All of this translates into higher electricity bills.
“We know it’s very expensive to be poor,” says Nock. “You’re going to need a lot more energy consumption to achieve the same standard of living as your wealthier counterparts.”
Even before the pandemic, nearly one in three households in the United States struggled to pay their electric bills or heat or cool their homes. It’s a problem called energy insecurity, which has worsened as more people have been forced to stay home for work and school.
People also started using electricity at different times of the day, the researchers found.
Historically, residential electricity consumption has peaked in the morning and evening, when people get ready for work and school, and when they get home and settle in for the night. Plotted on a graph, these two peaks in electricity consumption create a shape sometimes called a “camel curve.” But with people spending more time at home, the camel’s humps have flattened, reshaping the demand curve into one with a longer peak throughout the day.
This is important to know because the stability of our electricity grid depends on a precarious balance between energy supply and demand. To prevent power consumption from overwhelming the grid, some utilities offer packages with “hourly rates” that make electricity use cheaper during periods of low demand and more expensive during periods of high demand. request. In Arizona, for example, the residents included in the study who benefited from hourly flat rates were subject to these higher rates between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. The higher daily rates are meant to encourage people to save electricity during this time, relieving pressure on the grid. But residents with rigid schedules who have to work from home end up paying higher bills.
The effect of remote work on future energy demand
Going forward, the pursuit of remote work could reshape the demand curve, just as the pandemic has. It’s something that utilities will have to adapt to to ensure that everyone has enough energy at affordable prices when they need it most.
This shift in demand could be a great opportunity for solar power to really shine. Solar panels can harvest the most energy during the day, obviously when the sun is out. In the past, this did not match peak demand well. But with more people working from home during those hours, solar home systems could lower their long-term energy costs and relieve stress on the grid.
Unfortunately, home solar power remains a luxury purchase in most cases. “[Solar panel] installation is still expensive right now. This could benefit high-income people rather than low-income people,” says Jiehong Lou, assistant research professor at the University of Maryland and lead author of one of the studies she co-authored with Nock. .
Although some options are starting to appear for tenants, the prerequisites for having a residential solar installation are usually quite onerous. Do you own your own house? Can you shell out around $15,000 to $25,000 to purchase and install the panels, or is your credit strong enough to finance the purchase? Is the roof in good enough condition? Does it get enough sun?
With all these hurdles to overcome, the benefits of solar home power still don’t reach the people who would benefit the most. To even things out, Lou says, supportive policies might need to provide subsidies or other measures to make solar panels and energy-efficient appliances more accessible to everyone.
The Biden administration, for example, recently announced new plans to connect more people to “community solar” projects that allow many residents to share in the benefits of a solar farm. The objective is to make solar energy more accessible to low-income households while reducing their energy bill. Biden’s plans focus specifically on people who live in subsidized housing and families who are eligible for help paying their heating and cooling bills through the federal Household Energy Assistance Program. low income (LIHEAP). LIHEAP also provides funds for the weatherization of homes to make them more energy efficient. Things like eliminating drafts, better insulating windows, and even replacing incandescent bulbs with more efficient LED lights can make a big difference in reducing electricity costs.
Climate change, of course, makes the shift to renewable energy and more efficient homes even more urgent. Summers are hotter and more dangerous, especially for people doing their best in stuffy homes.
Nock points out that to keep our energy system functional and fair, in a world where many more people are working from home, we will need to think about more than power lines, power plants and solar panels. “They should also consider changing our housing infrastructure because energy poverty happens in the house,” she says. Homes should be better places to live and work for everyone, not just the wealthy.