Environmental Shifts in Behavior Resulting from COVID-19 Stay-at-Home Orders

February 3, 2021

How has the shift in behaviors due to the pandemic affected the environment in terms of energy and transportation?

Questions to think about:

  • How might there be environmental impacts?
  • What purchases are people drawn to? Do they purchase more bicycles, sell their cars?
  • What might people be shifting to permanently? Which changes seem permanent?
  • Is there an increase in residential electricity consumption?

Introduction:

Ever since the stay-at-home orders were issued in March 2020 in the United States, people’s behaviors have changed dramatically in terms of the distribution of energy consumption and the use of transportation. These two behavioral shifts provide valuable insight to the environmental impacts of the pandemic. 

 During the ongoing pandemic, commutes powered by fossil fuels were replaced as people settled in to work from home. Residential energy consumption shot up as electricity powered lights, heating, and cooling systems within spacious homes. Energy saved from the reduction in commute was counterbalanced by the uptick in at-home energy use. 

However, when people do choose to commute from place to place, there has been a large shift away from public transportation. Fears of germs and contamination in public spaces have led people to turn to using personal bikes and cars. When car production shut down in the early stages of the pandemic, its effect of lowering supply coincided with this boost in demand for cars, causing used-car prices to soar. This shift to personal ownership of cars may have an adverse effect once the pandemic subsides and people return to their previous lifestyles and habits.


Electricity Usage:

Before the pandemic, the typical pattern for residential usage increased in the morning (around 8 am), decreased in the afternoon (9am-5pm), and peaked in the evening. Members of the household would “normally be at work, at school or engaging in other activities outside the home.” (New Data Suggest COVID-19 Is Shifting the Burden of Energy Costs to Households)

Chart of weekday energy use

In this study, which is still ongoing, Columbia researchers have observed the electricity consumption from 400 New York City apartments. There was an average 23% increase in electricity consumption in the afternoon, when most people would be at school or work pre-pandemic. 

From Hourly Smart Data, Steve Cicala from the National Bureau of Economic Research examined the change in energy consumption in Texas residential areas. This study drew similar results to that of the Columbia researchers. “These changes in daily rhythms are reflected in monthly data from utilities… with residential consumption rising by 10% on  average, and commercial and industrial consumption falling by 12% and 14%, respectively, during the second quarter of 2020… households spent nearly $6B on excess electricity from April-July, 2020.” 

However, as energy consumption grows in the residential sectors, there is a cost, both economically and environmentally. Individuals who already have economic difficulties due to COVID-19 have to pay for the additional utility expenses (New Data Suggest COVID-19...). Working from home may also not be as environmentally friendly as one would expect. While there has been a reduction in energy consumption typically used for commuting, that has been almost equally counterbalanced by the residential energy consumption (Working from Home’s Impact on Electricity Use in the Pandemic).

 

Energy associated with heating, cooling, and other various essentials were the cause for the boost in residential consumption. “From an environmental standpoint, working and studying from home comes with a cost, especially for those living in large suburban houses. These homes are not as energy efficient, on average, as schools and offices. This reduction in daytime energy efficiency is a partial counterbalance to the energy savings associated with reduced commuting.” (Working from Home’s Impact…)

Another result to consider is how the types of energy sources fluctuated after the pandemic hit. Though the use of natural gas continued to be the front-runner in the electricity mix, there were fluctuations in coal, renewable, and nuclear energy. When the first stay-at-home restrictions were put in place, renewables took second place as energy demand increased, contributing 24% to the U.S. energy consumption. However, in the coming hotter months there was even more demand for energy, and coal and nuclear surged up to meet it.


Transportation/Mobility Sector:

With the increase in telework and telecommunications during COVID-19, long commutes were eliminated. In cities that typically had long commutes, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, telecommunication could prove beneficial to reduce city emissions. (Scientific American: COVID Pandemic-19 Shows Telecommuting Can Help Fight Climate Change)

Even so, the sharp decrease in city transportation emissions shown on these two graphs do not represent the residential energy consumption mentioned earlier. “If that added electricity comes from renewable energy, telecommuting could offer more significant emissions reductions.” (Scientific American) Only if cities, known for their long work commutes, rely on a greater percentage of clean energy sources, then we will start seeing an overall improvement in energy usage. 

 

 

An additional issue brought up by the pandemic is the shift away from public transit in an effort to become more germ-conscious. People have switched to individual vehicles, such as cars and bikes, as they see those methods of transportation as safer. Many countries have seen this predicted drop in public transit, though many essential workers and those of lower socioeconomic status still rely on public transit to get from place to place. (What opportunities could the COVID-19 outbreak offer for sustainability transitions research on electricity and mobility?)

With this increase in demand for cars, the automotive market was consequently affected. Once the pandemic hit in March 2020 in the United States, auto plants were required to shut down per the federal restrictions. “That has created a shortage of new-car inventory, pushing more people onto the used-car market.” (A Pandemic Sticker Shock: Used-Car Prices Are Through The Roof) Because of the reduction in supply and the increase in demand for cars, used-car prices inflated. 

It is too early to tell how this might impact overall emissions, as stay-at-home policies are still implemented in many cities in the United States. However, until vaccines are available to the public at large, the shift away from public transit and towards car ownership does not bode well for the environment during this coronavirus-conscious age. 


Sources:

http://www.stevecicala.com/papers/powering_wfh/powering_wfh.pdf

https://www.saveonenergy.com/learning-center/post/pandemic-shifts-energy-usage-residential-customers/ 

https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2020/04/21/covid-19-energy-costs-households/

https://www.nber.org/digest-202012/working-homes-impact-electricity-use-pandemic 

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/covid-19-pandemic-shows-telecommuting-can-help-fight-climate-change/ 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629620302413

https://www.npr.org/2020/10/28/927971920/a-pandemic-sticker-shock-used-car-prices-are-through-the-roof