The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a sneak peek into how working from home changes electricity demand and what that might mean for Americans’ utility bills. The picture it’s painted so far isn’t very pretty, particularly for anyone who’s already struggling to meet their needs.
The transition to remote work is changing our energy system in ways that could worsen racial and economic inequities in the US. Working from home shifts energy costs from employers to workers. That burden is bigger for people who live in older, less efficient homes.
“I was either freezing in my house in the winter and trying to work from the kitchen or burning in my house in the summer,” Destenie Nock, an assistant professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, tells The Verge. She lives in a century-old home in Pittsburgh that she says isn’t as well-insulated as newer construction, which became more obvious as she worked from home after the pandemic struck in 2020.
Then in the summer, she learned that a neighbor fainted in her home during a heat spell. The air conditioner was broken, and the neighbor didn’t have the funds at the time to fix it. “It was a really clear connection to how lack of energy use can lead to really important health outcomes,” says Nock, who is also the 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 the way people use electricity in their homes. Once-predictable patterns have changed, they found. And those changes have already had disparate impacts on people based on race and income. Some of those problems could persist if working from home is here to stay.
Nock and her fellow researchers analyzed smart meter data from thousands of homes and businesses in Arizona and Illinois — two states representative of hotter and colder regions in the US — for January 2019 through April 2020. While offices and other commercial buildings shut down and used less electricity during the pandemic, they found that residential electricity use ticked up by around 5 percent as many people spent more time in their homes. Collectively, Americans paid $6 billion more on their home electricity bills from April to July 2020 than they would have before pandemic lockdowns, a separate study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found.
Low-income households and communities of color saw the greatest increase in electricity consumption, Nock and her co-authors found in their research. In Arizona, where the disparities were starker, electricity use jumped up by nearly 10 percent for low-income, non-white people — twice the increase in residential electricity consumption overall.
One likely explanation is that people with less money tend to live in older housing, with worse insulation, less-efficient heating and cooling systems, and older, more energy-hungry appliances. All that translates into higher electricity bills.
“We know that it’s very expensive to be poor,” Nock says. “You’re going to be needing a lot more energy consumption to achieve the same standard of living as your more wealthy counterparts.”
Even before the pandemic, nearly one in three households in the US struggled to pay their electricity bills or heat or cool their homes. It’s a problem called energy insecurity, which got worse when more people were forced to stay at home for work and school.
People also started using electricity during different times of the day, the researchers found.
Historically, residential electricity use has peaked in the morning and evening, when people get ready for work and school, and when they come home and settle in for the night. Plotted on a graph, those two peaks in electricity use create a shape that’s sometimes called the “camel curve.” But with people spending more time at home, the camel’s humps flattened — reshaping the demand curve into one with more of a prolonged peak throughout the middle of the day.
That’s important to know because the stability of our power grid depends on a precarious balance between energy supply and demand. To keep energy use from overwhelming the grid, some utilities offer plans with “time-of-use rates” that make it cheaper to use electricity during times of low demand and more expensive during times of high demand. In Arizona, for example, residents included in the study who were on time-of-use plans were subject to those higher rates between 2 and 8PM. The higher daytime rates are supposed to encourage people to save electricity during that time period, relieving pressure on the grid. But residents with inflexible schedules who have to work from home just wind up paying higher bills.
The effect of remote work on future energy demand
Looking forward, continued remote work could bend the demand curve into a new shape just as the pandemic did. That’s something utilities will have to adjust to in order to make sure everyone has enough energy at affordable prices when they most need it.
That shift in demand could be a great opportunity for solar energy to really shine. Solar panels can harvest the most energy during the day, obviously, when the sun is out in full force. In the past, that hasn’t lined up well with peak demand. But with more people working from home during those hours, home solar systems could lower their energy costs in the long run and relieve stress on the grid.
Unfortunately, home solar is still a luxury purchase in most cases. “[Solar panel] installation is still expensive right now. It might benefit those high-income people instead of low-income people,” says Jiehong Lou, an assistant research professor at the University of Maryland and the lead author of one of the studies she co-authored with Nock.
While there are some options starting to pop up for renters, the prerequisites for having a residential solar setup are usually pretty hefty. Do you own your own home? Can you shell out about $15,000 to $25,000 to buy and install the panels, or is your credit strong enough to finance the purchase? Is the roof in good enough shape? Does it get enough sunlight?
With all those hoops to jump through, the perks of home solar still aren’t reaching the folks 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 with “community solar” projects that allow many residents to share in the benefits of a solar farm. The aim is to make solar energy more accessible for low-income households while shrinking their energy bills. Biden’s plans specifically focus on people who live in subsidized housing, and families that qualify for help paying their heating and cooling bills through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). LIHEAP also provides funds for weatherizing 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 lowering 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, particularly for people making do the best they can in sweltering homes.
Nock points out that to keep our energy system functional and fair, in a world where many more people work from home, we’ll need to think about more than just power lines, power plants, and solar panels. “They should also look at changing our housing infrastructure because energy poverty occurs in the home,” she says. Homes ought to be better places to live and work for everybody, not just the wealthy.