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Energy use and demand in a (post) COVID-19 world

Keeping tabs on energy use is crucial for any individual, organisation or energy network. Energy usage affects our bills, what we choose to power (or not) and how we think about saving energy for a more sustainable future for our planet. We no longer want to rely on polluting fossil fuels for energy, we need cleaner and more sustainable solutions, and both technologies and behaviours need to be in the mix.  

It seems the COVID-19 crisis may be a good time to evaluate our energy usage, especially since we assume that we are using less energy because we’re not all doing/consuming as much. We brought together a bunch of our researchers from different disciplines across the University of Bristol to have a group think about how we might change our energy usage and demand during and post COVID-19. Here’s a summary of what was discussed. 

Has COVID-19 reduced our energy supply and demand? 

You may have noticed in the previous paragraph that I mentioned that we assume that we are using less energy during this COVID-19 crisis. We’re not travelling or commuting as much; we’re not in our work buildings using lots of energy for heating, cooling, lighting, making cups of coffee; and for those of us who work in offices, we’re not all sat around computers all day, especially those that have been furloughed. So what actually is the collective impact of our reduced transport, cessation of business and working from home, doing to our energy supply and demand?  

John Brenton, the University of Bristol’s Sustainability Manager spoke on the University’s experience during lockdown. During this COVID-19 crisis so far, UK electricity consumption has fallen by 19% and this percentage reduction has also been seen at the University of Bristol too. Thing is, when there is reduced demand for electricity, fossil fuels become cheaper. It makes us ask the question, could this be a disincentive to investing in renewables? John also pointed out that COVID-19 has shrunk further an already shrinking energy market (which was already shrinking due to energy saving).  

Even though electricity consumption has gone down by almost 20%, we are still emitting greenhouse gases, though not so much from our commute to school and work, but with the data we are using, now that a lot of us are home all day. Professor Chris Preist, Professor of Sustainability & Computer Systems, Department of Computer Science, said if we continue to embrace these new ways of working, we are going to replace the traffic jam with the data centre. Of global emissions today, 2% to 3% are made up through input of digital technology. Though the direct emissions of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) are an issue and need to be addressed, they have a different impact than aviation. Digital tech is more egalitarian and a little technology is used by more people, than the much fewer privileged people who fly for example. 

The systemic changes in society to homeworking can also increase our emissions far more than the digital tech itself, for example, people tend to live further away from work if they are allowed to work from home. Who needs to live in the city when you don’t have an office any more or you don’t have to come in to work very often? You may as well live where you want. You could even live abroad, but those few times you may need to come into the office, you would be travelling further and if abroad you may still have to fly in which would mean that your emissions would be huge, even though you are no longer commuting all year. 

Are there positive changes and how might these be continued post-COVID-19?  

Chris shared that most people and companies are now considering remote working as standard post-lockdown, which will reduce commuting and potentially improve emissions. Two thirds of UK adults will work from home more often and the benefits of this are that when people do go into work, they will likely be hot desking, this means companies will require less space and can reduce carbon emissions. Working from home will lead to a reduction of traffic on the roads. 

We are video conferencing so much more, in fact Netflix agreed to reduce the resolution of their programmes in order to provide more capacity for home working and the ensuing video calls. But how does videoconferencing compare to our cars? One hour of video conferencing is equivalent to driving 500 metres in your car.   

COVID-19 has also shown that a dramatic change in policy can be rapidly put in place, so this can be relevant in replicating for rolling out sustainability and energy initiatives. 

What are the implications for social justice?  

Dr Ed Atkins, who works on environmental and energy policy, politics and governance in the School of Geographical Sciences, spoke on the politics of a just transition. Changes to energy grids have been driven by collapsing demand and a lack of profitability in fossil fuels. Any investment post-COVID-19 will shape the infrastructure of the future, whether it will be clean or fossil intensive. Unfortunately many economic actors are using the COVID-19 crisis to roll back environmental regulations and stimulate investment by the taxpayer into fossil-intensive industry and economic policies.  

Although many politicians are calling for a green recovery, which is positive, none of the current policies incorporate a just transition. A just transition would include job guarantee schemes and a rapid investment into green infrastructure as well as social justice and equity. A just transition would also account for the fact that not everyone can work from home, not everyone has a comfortable home to work in or the technology required to do so.  

So what do we need to consider? Caroline Bird, who studies the cross-sectoral issues of environmental sustainability and energy in the Department of Computer Science, said that homeworking doesn't work for everyone and often doesn't work for the poorly paid. It doesn’t work well for the most vulnerable or least resilient in our society and community support is often needed here. We need to consider how we will educate everyone for a low carbon future. The government needs to take up the mantle and lead and pay for this. Policy change is possible, but we need to consider loss of interest and changing messages from the government that can lead to confusion.  

We also need to consider rapid action to reduce the impact of COVID-19 and rapid action to reduce economic harm. But this is where the justice side of things is not well considered. 

Can we imagine radical transformations as we emerge from lockdown?  

Professor Dale Southerton, Professor in Sociology of Consumption and Organisation, in the Department of Management, initially raised some provocative questions: what has changed and what has remained and/or endured during COVID-19? And respectively, what will endure post-COVID-19? What has become the ‘new normal’ with regards to energy usage and consumption? Our routines and habits underpin our new normality and these routines and habits constitute demand - which is in opposition to how economists define demand. But how do the norms/normality come to be?  

For example, how did the fridge freezer in our kitchen become normal? Because of the fridge freezer, it changed the design of our kitchens, we changed how we shopped, moving from small and regular local shopping trips to big weekly shops at supermarkets, all because we could store more fresh food. This drove us to embrace cars much more, as we needed the boot space to transport our fresh goods home and supermarkets were placed outside of local shopping areas so cars were needed to access them. All this together moves to the ‘normality’. 

So then, what radical transformations have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic? We’ve seen more of us move to homeworking, with face to face interactions taking place via video call. Our food distribution systems have changed somewhat away from going regularly to the supermarket or dining out to buying produce online and receiving deliveries, and embracing takeaway culture much more. In a relatively short period of time we have re-imagined how to work and made it happen. However, the material infrastructure and cultural and social elements still need to evolve and change (which includes how the changes might affect our mental health, how we discipline our time at home, etc).  

Caroline said that there are lots of other things we could be doing to decarbonise our energy use during and post-COVID-19, such as: 
  • Creating good staff with good knowledge. To do that we need to support their mental health, give them education and development opportunities, and strengthen the fragility of the supply chain they might work in. 
  • Educating everyone about low carbon and energy efficiency. To do this we need to consider what skills are needed, which of those are transferable, which skills will take more time to develop and what training programmes are needed for individuals. 
  • Developing policies which don’t allow resistance from developers, or poor workmanship of properties, which can have co-benefits to health and social justice. A better planned housing estate, home and national infrastructure will improve social justice and energy savings enormously. 
The only thing stopping us is bureaucracy and policy. It’s up to us to challenge the pre-COVID-19 status quo and demand fairer and cleaner energy. You can do this by writing to your local MP, share information on social media and with your friends and take part in activism. We could have a positive new future if we get it right.  


Follow the speakers on Twitter:
Dr Ed Atkins @edatkins_ 
Caroline Bird @CarolineB293 
Professor Chris Preist @ChrisPreist 
John Brenton @UoBris_Sust 

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This blog was written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Cabot Institute Coordinator @Enviro_Mand. With thanks to Ruzanna Chitchyan for chairing the discussion panel and taking the notes.
Amanda Woodman-Hardy


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