The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in drastic and abrupt changes to daily life. One area where this change has been particularly stark is energy consumption. Lockdowns across the globe resulted in a reduction of overall energy consumption, carbon emissions and air pollution. It is estimated that during April 2020 there was up to 25% reduction in global CO2 emissions and significant reduction in other greenhouse gases and air pollutants. These estimates are primarily based on the changes observed in peoples’ mobility as shops and offices closed and those who could do so, started to work from home. While remote working for most is a temporary interlude necessitated by public health measures, it has been a growing trend prior to the pandemic and now some companies, such as Twitter, have announced that employees will be allowed to work from home indefinitely. This raises the question about the possibilities and the implications of remote working in a longer-term perspective for the energy sector and emissions post pandemic.
The common assumption has been that remote working can reduce overall energy demand and the resulting emissions by replacing commuting and office demand with less intensive home-based energy consumption. However a recent paper reviewing 39 research studies in the area reveals a more complex and inconclusive landscape. Estimates of the emissions impact of remote working vary considerably, with 26 suggesting it would reduce emissions (one suggesting a 77% reduction), 8 indicating no change or an even increase in emissions and the remaining studies being unclear. In particular, once the wider impacts outside of simply the reduction in commuting, are considered the benefits become less clear. Three key considerations upon which the emissions reduction potential depends have been identified:
1. Full-time or part-time remote working
A sizeable portion of the UK workforce could do their jobs remotely (up to 44%), however the emissions reductions potential are highly dependent on uptake and the remote working policy put in place. Surveys suggest that following the lockdown in Spring 2020, many people would like to change their work routines to divide their time between home and the office. This hybrid model where people work from home for some portion of the week may not lead to significant emissions reductions since for many firms this would not warrant downsizing or doing away with office space. In addition, remote working during the pandemic has led many people to move further away from their places of work, which could ironically lead to higher overall emissions if they continue to go to the office even once or twice a week.
2. Changing routines and filling the commuting time void
Key benefits of remote working, for employees, are the elimination of commutes and the flexibility to perform other activities during working hours. During lockdown this has resulted in many taking up new hobbies, baking being the most
prominent, which could result in increased energy consumption. Although these may not be long term phenomena, people will change their daily routines and do things with this newfound time, the energy and emissions implications of which are interesting yet highly unpredictable.
3. Manufacturing information and communications technology (ICT) equipment
The lockdown saw a surge in interest for webcams and computer monitors. In order to facilitate large-scale remote working significant amounts of additional ICT equipment will be required resulting in emissions associated with manufacture, shipping and disposal.
An Opportunity: Domestic Demand Flexibility
The extent to which remote working will reduce overall consumption and emissions remains unclear. However its effect on electricity demand and in particular the daily variation of demand is more apparent. The first few weeks of lockdown in the UK resulted in a decrease in electricity demand and importantly a change in the shape of the demand curve across the day (see Figure 1). With offices closed and reduced service on the rail network the usual distinction between weekdays and weekends was blurred.
Figure 1: Effect of Lockdown on Electricity Demand in the UK
Historically, electricity demand in the UK has two distinct peaks: one in the morning at around 08:00 when people are getting ready and going to work, and one in the evening between 17:00 and 19:00 when people are returning home and preparing dinner. The Oxford METER project, which collects activity and electricity consumption data, has shown that during lockdown there was a significant change in people’s daily routines (see Figure 2 right). The morning activities shifted by an hour to 09:00 as people slept till later and the evening activities reduced dramatically. Being at home meant that people spread their activities more evenly across the day.
Figure 2: Changes in UK Electricity Demand
The emissions intensity of the electricity network and effect of a reduction in demand is highly dependent on when those reductions occur. For example, in 2019 the average emissions intensity (i.e. the amount of CO2 emitted per kWh of electricity produced) in the UK during the evening peak (17:00-19:00) was 243g/kWh, during the middle of the day (10:00-13:00) the emissions intensity was 212g/kWh or 12% lower and at night (00:00- 04:00) the emissions intensity was even lower at 186g/kWh. With increasing amounts of intermittent renewables on the electricity network overall emissions could reduce. However the emissions intensity of the electricity grid will vary significantly across the day as expensive and polluting, gas turbines (known as peaking plants) would be needed to match supply and demand. Additionally, given the electrification of the heating and transportation sectors, it is expected that the peaks and troughs in demand will become more pronounced.
Domestic demand-side response (i.e. shifting or reducing demand in response to price signals) could provide an alternative source of the much-needed flexibility in a cost-effective way while also reducing emissions. However previous trials, performed under normal conditions, have shown mixed results. The engagement, responsiveness and persistence of demand-side response have varied significantly across trials and commercial uptake is currently limited. One of the major hurdles has been that people’s demand flexibility is inextricably linked to when people are at home. Although automation can overcome this to a certain extent, the trials mentioned above show limited use of such technologies even when they are provided. The interesting finding is that the lockdown and remote working has shown that even without price signals demand has been spread more evenly across the day reducing the morning and evening peaks (see Figure 2 left) and this, among other things (e.g. more wind power on the network), has led to an overall reduction in electricity related emissions in the UK in 2020. Price signals or information on the time varying nature of emissions could further enhance responsiveness of people given their greater flexibility when working from home.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown has inadvertently created a global social experiment in remote working. It has given us a glimpse into what widespread adoption of remote working policies may entail and what their implications might be on the energy sector. However, determining the persistent trends and impacts remote working may have on overall emissions remains unclear. Indeed, a lot depends on the behavioural responses people will have in terms of changes to their routines, where they live and what they do with the time they gain from not commuting. Remote working does offer opportunities beyond reduced transport emissions, specifically into the electricity network. The flexibility of being able to spread activities across the day, may not lead to reductions in demand but could increase the potential for domestic consumers to shift their electricity consumption to times when emissions are lower, for example when the sun is shining, or the wind is blowing. This maybe where the true benefit of remote working could be realised for emissions reductions.
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Saurab Chhachhi is a postgraduate researcher at Imperial College London, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. His work focuses on the integration of renewable energy and incentivising demand flexibility. Currently he is investigating the effects of data privacy concerns and behavioural modelling on the potential of residential demand response. He has previously worked at The Brattle Group.