Researchers at Oregon State University and Stanford University found declines in electricity consumption during the pandemic across the U.S. and more than 50 nations, with daily electricity use declining by roughly eight percent in April 2020. In addition to the severity of lockdown restrictions, other factors linked to a decline in electricity demand were a country’s electricity use during holidays and changes in individual mobility – for example, travel to retail and recreation locations. In the U.S., the Pacific Northwest saw a six percent decline compared to 11 percent for the Midwest. Study co-authors Hilary Boudet from Oregon State University and Ram Rajagopal from Stanford University reveal how their findings could help utilities and regulators better respond to unforeseen shocks to energy grids, including from extreme weather.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. How much electricity did people all around the world use in the early days of the pandemic when so much of everyday life shut down almost overnight? That’s one of the big questions that researchers at Oregon State and Stanford Universities looked into. Their answers could help utilities plan for the next major disruptions to their users’ lives. Hilary Boudet is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at OSU. Ram Rajagopal is an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford. Welcome to you both.
Hilary Boudet: Thanks. Thanks for having us.
Dave Miller: Hilary Boudet, first, why was this important to look into? What exactly were you hoping to learn?
Hilary Boudet: One thing that many folks might not know or realize about the way our electricity grid works is that, at all times, supply and demand have to be balanced. Utilities are often and constantly trying to predict what consumption will look like in the future. When you have a crisis like the pandemic or or extreme weather events and those predictions become more difficult, you really want to know what other factors you can rely on to make an educated guess about what consumption might look like. That’s really where this research started, is to try to understand if we could come up with ways to better understand and predict consumption.
Dave Miller: Ram Rajagopal, this was a global crisis, so theoretically you could get data from all over the world and see how it affected different countries or different regions differently. But how did you get that information? Is it publicly available all around the world?
Ram Rajagopal: That’s an excellent question. One of the key challenges to be faced when we started this research is that this data is available, but it’s not readily formatted or necessarily in a way that we can directly do analysis on. So our team had to download and organize a database with the data from all of the different countries and regions in the United States, as well as socioeconomic information and mobility information and so on and so forth. So that was the start of the project.
Dave Miller: What countries saw the biggest declines in electricity use? And I should say this is for the beginning of the pandemic, for basically much of 2020. But when you look country to country, what really stands out, Ram?
Ram Rajagopal: I think Italy and India stood out as the countries that had the biggest decline at the peak of the decline, if you can say it that way. They reduced electricity consumption by more than 20%. We also saw countries that had severe declines but not as steep as Italy and India, which included in the United States, regions such as California, Tennessee, and so on, that experienced about on average a 10% decline. In the electricity grid, a 1% change is already considered very substantial, just as a reference.
Dave Miller: An 11% change which was around the average for the US, so that’s as you said, I think the word you use is ‘severe.’ Even if it, to a lay person, doesn’t seem like that much, if you’re a utility, it’s an enormous drop.
Ram Rajagopal: Yes if you’re a utility, things that you you worry about… there [are] all these generators that you need to schedule, and if you have 10% less load than expected, but which cannot be anticipated, it means you turn on a whole host of generators unnecessarily and that certainly can increase electricity costs, for example.
Dave Miller: Hilary Boudet, one of the things that stood out from your research is that places in the US that had very different levels of restrictions in place. I’m thinking about states in New England where there were more restrictions on public life, or a state like Florida which had less because of political differences. They saw more or less the same decline in electricity. How do you explain that?
Hilary Boudet: One of the things we wanted to do was look at what was driving these changes, both during the initial decline and then in the recovery phase, and the restrictions were one factor. More severe restrictions resulted in more decline. But other factors that we found that mattered related to the individual choices. The aggregation of those individual choices that we made in particular areas about how much we were willing to travel, particularly to retail and recreation locations. So it may be that there is some difference in those places about the individual choices that people made in terms of their mobility that were similar in those locations despite the differing restrictions. Also, we looked at a characteristic of the electricity system that was important and that was, pre-pandemic, sensitivity to holidays. So there could have been some similarities about the electricity system in those places that drove similar results despite differences and restrictions.
Dave Miller: One of the obvious changes in a lot of people’s lives in March or April of 2020 was a lot of people, not everybody certainly, but people who could, many of them were working from home.,So, offices got a lot less use. But those people who were working at at home, they still had to perhaps heat their homes with electricity or use appliances or turn their lights on, use their computers or whatever. That stuff was still happening, still being powered by electricity. So how do you account for these declines that we’re seeing all across the country and all across the world? What actually wasn’t being turned on?
Hilary Boudet: I think some of it is related to commercial use. So, as commercial entities responded to changing patterns and changing consumption patterns among the individuals that you might have seen them turn off things, and as industry responded as well. Some other research suggests that residential usage actually went up during this time period. So I think a lot of the declines were in the commercial and industrial sectors.
Dave Miller: Ram Rajagopal, what does it tell you that, for brief periods, with the most severe restrictions on public life and work that we’ve seen in our lifetimes, still the biggest reductions in electrical consumption on average were around 11%. It’s as you noted earlier, that’s a big deal for utilities, but in terms of where we need to go as human beings, in terms of reductions and electrical consumption, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal.
Ram Rajagopal: It’s a great point. I think that one lesson that we can take from observing the electricity system during the pandemic is that, if your goal is to reduce emissions in the electricity sector, expecting that reductions in consumptions alone would be a big contributor to the solution is not going to pan out. You, in fact, will have to decarbonize the supply of this electricity because, as we see, there is a sensitivity to severe restrictions on people’s mobility and use, but despite that, consumption only reduces in these amounts that we saw. And partly because a lot of electricity consumption is scheduled, it does not necessarily depend on our decisions as individuals to consume or not. Many buildings during the pandemic kept their heating and cooling on because these systems will fail if they’re not operating.
Dave Miller: Which suggests that we need systemic changes in how we heat and cool and manage electrical use to make them more efficient.
Ram Rajagopal: Yes.
Dave Miller: And not have lights on when no one’s there.
Ram Rajagopal: That’s right. And I also think, really, take very seriously the idea that we need to urgently decarbonize all of our supply of electricity.
Dave Miller: Ram Rajagopal and Hilary Boudet, thanks very much.
Hilary Boudet: Thanks for having us.
Ram Rajagopal: Thank you for having us.
Dave Miller: Ram Rajagopal is an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford. Hilary Boudet is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Oregon State University.
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