We like to think that, as individuals, we are unique and original. In fact, as a group, we are utterly predictable. Monday through Friday, the majority of the UK population wakes up around 7, commutes, works 9 to 5, then jumps into evening traffic, and arrives home to make themselves some dinner and a nice cup of tea. This translates into a very typical, U-shaped pattern of weekday electricity usage, with peaks around 7am and 7pm, and valleys in between.
This predictability is essential to the smooth operation of the National Grid. Dr. Grunewald, from the University of Oxford’s of the Environmental Change Institute, is in his fourth year of a study which uses self-reported data to determine how we use electricity and how we can be more energy efficient. In a recent Q&A for Oxford Sparks, he explained: “We have a real natural rhythm to our electricity use, [which] helps the guys in the control centre to ramp up demand in the morning when we need it, ramp it down in the evening when we don’t.”
At the moment, that rhythm is shot. Both our weekly and daily patterns of electricity usage since the beginning of the lockdown have changed drastically (see Lost that weekly rhythm). The infection curve isn’t the only one we’ve flattened by staying at home: the morning surge in electricity demand has shifted by roughly an hour, while electricity usage throughout the day is fairly constant, almost swallowing the evening peak (see The new lockdown rhythm). Dr Grunewald explains: “what drives peak demand is social synchronisation: a lot of things that we tend to do as a society much at the same time”. With our current 30 second commutes, our workdays are much less structured, particularly if we are juggling home working and homeschooling. In fact, the data show that people are far more active in the morning than they used to be, and far more relaxed in the evening. According to Dr Grunewald, ‘making a cup of tea’ is one of the single most reported activities during the lockdown, and the pleasure people derive from this activity has also increased. I can personally report that my tea consumption has at least doubled (and that is probably a wildly conservative estimate).
On a national level, electricity usage has decreased, since the increased domestic demand is more than offset by the shutdown of so-called “large electrical loads” such as factories, shops, and railways. Estimates from April suggested that the demand for electricity in the UK had already fallen by between 9% and 13%. A flagship report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), published in April, revealed a similar trend in countries across the world, with several countries reporting a 20% decrease in electricity demand during periods of complete lockdown. In Italy, electricity demand fell by over 25%.
The change in our pattern of electricity consumption has affected the power mix. In particular, a higher proportion of our electricity is now being provided by renewables. As of the 10th of June, the UK had gone two months without using any coal-generated electricity, and as Dr Grunewald explains, we are setting “lifetime records for not using fossil fuels.” This is because peak demand is usually served by the most polluting sources of electricity, such as diesel generators, which can be quickly ramped up. When demand is low, wind and solar energy production — which has lower running costs — is given priority.
In fact, renewables were the only source of energy around the world that experienced a growth in demand, despite the global energy demand falling by 3.8% compared to this time last year. In part, this is because coal-based economies, such as China, as well as gas-based economies, ground to a halt for much of the first quarter of 2020. Roads and skies have emptied, and since mobility and aviation account for 60% of the global oil consumption, oil demand has also dropped. The demand for nuclear power has continued its downward trend: though six nuclear power plants came online in the last year, many more have been shut down in the same period. In contrast, without the pandemic it would have taken years for the share of global energy generated by renewables to reach its current proportions.
And according to the IEA, this trend could continue over the next year. The agency’s model predicts that the impact of COVID-19 on energy demand in 2020 will be more than seven times larger than the effect the financial crisis had in 2008. They further estimate that global CO2 emissions will decline by 8%, to what they were 10 years ago. Dr Grunewald suggests that “this could be a change for good: some of these fossil fuels [could] really get squeezed out of the market and won’t be seen again.”
As we come out of the lockdown, it is crucial that we carefully consider how we want to rebuild our energy systems. If previous crises are anything to go by, the rebound in emissions as the economy shifts back into gear could far outweigh the reductions we’ve made in a few short months. Considerable structural changes and a concerted policy effort are needed if we are to use this crisis as a jumpstart towards a more sustainable future. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can be unpredictable, and we can upset the trend.
Written by Helena Cornu and edited by Ailie McWhinnie.
Helena’s thoughts… Writing this article made me think a lot about habits, and patterns of behaviour. One article in the New York Times suggested that, though it can be very hard to break habitual behaviours, we might adopt some new practices as a result of the pandemic. For example, it’s very likely that virtual conferences are here to stay. Similarly, I find it hard to believe that we’ll be able to unlearn 20-second hand washing, or reduced social contact, because it’s become such a huge part of our life.
With the massive upheaval that this crisis has inflicted on our lives, we’ve shown that we are capable of adapting our routines. Granted, it was necessitated by a deadly global pandemic. But a pilot study from 2018, which used Dr Grunewald’s data collection app, was able to reduce peak electricity use by 15%, simply by asking people to do so.
Are we capable of adapting our social patterns to combat climate change — a crisis that’s much less visible than a pandemic but arguably just as urgent? And more to the point, are we willing to?
For more on how the pandemic is impacting life far beyond the health-sphere, check out A comeback for nature – is the silver lining of the pandemic actually green? for an investigation into how the lockdown has affected nature.