Wednesday, July 21, 2021
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The Impacts of COVID-19 on Ontario's Residential Electricity Usage

Thursday was National Work from Home Day and, it has officially been over a year since the initial lockdown started. Despite all the change and uncertainty brought on by the recent pandemic, working from home is one by-product of COVID-19 that is more than likely here to stay.

With the mandatory closures of non-essential buildings and workplaces, with no indication of how long this will last, working from home has become the new normal. Laptops, webcams, monitors, speakers, and printers have quickly been integrated into our homes. As a result, commuting has become a thing of the past, alongside our usual Starbucks order commonly enjoyed while sitting in traffic.

With more people now working from home, there is no doubt there have been implications on behaviour in terms of electricity usage. By looking at energy consumption data from the last year, it is evident that many regions experienced increased residential electricity consumption, with the effect particularly significant during heavy usage hours.

What will this mean for the future of electricity bills in Ontario?

To answer this question, we need to consider how the Ontario electricity grid operates. Managed by the Independent System Operator (IESO), the grid has a 38,000-megawatt capacity, which has been enough to meet all of the provincial energy requirements. Power outages usually occur when the overall demand exceeds the amount of generated electricity currently available. In 2012, Ontario introduced peak pricing, also known as time-of-use pricing rates, to help mitigate high usage times and keep demand balanced. For example, the average person typically uses more electricity in the mornings before work and, conversely, in the evenings after work. Thus, electricity rates are increased during these peak time frames to avoid usage and ultimately reduce the overall demand on the electricity grid.

 COVID-19 lockdown measures caused the amount and timing of electricity usage across residential, commercial, and industrial sectors to change significantly. Data from the IESO shows that the highest annual peak electricity demand for 2020, which occurred on July 9th, was higher than the preceding six years. A significant change compared to Ontario's decade-long trend of decreasing electricity demand.

 

Ontario peak annual electricity demand and population: 2002-2020

Consider the typical workday prior to COVID-19. First, one would get ready in the morning at their place of residence, which would usually include cooking, turning lights on,turning on the air conditioning (AC) or heat, then followed by a commute to work. Once in the office, most energy usage becomes communal because electronic devices are shared usually among multiple people. For instance, one AC, one printer, and one coffee maker are used to service several employees.

Now, with the onset of working from home, most of these processes are done individually. So, for example, instead of one printer for an office of twenty people, these twenty people might now each have printers at home while simultaneously running their AC's and coffee machines. As you can imagine, it is easier to reduce the consumption of one device rather than multiple.

In a recent Carleton University paper ‘New Insights’ on the Energy Impacts of Telework, a survey was conducted among 298 participants, among who 98 percent were Ontarians. Telework is defined as working at home rather than in a central office at least one entire workday per week. The study results indicated that a shift toward telework might heighten the challenge of meeting energy policy goals in residential buildings.

 

The questions asked in the survey focused on:

Characteristics of the participant's household
Energy-saving actions taken at the office before COVID-19
Equipment that teleworkers need to work at home
Energy costs, consumption, and related behaviour at home
Awareness and effects of time-of-use pricing
Attitudes surrounding teleworking

Notably, participants reported using more energy for computers and office equipment, entertainment, cooking, lighting, and heating or cooling systems. Data from the IESO can confirm the survey results, showing an overall residential electricity demand increase of 4 to 14 percent during peak times in Ontario.

Apart from the significant increase in work-related devices at home, a second part of the survey was conducted specifically on AC usage. Participants were asked by interviewers how often they were using their AC compared to last summer. Of the 59 respondents with AC, 47 percent reported using their AC more during the day. On the other hand, 42 percent of participants reported using their AC the same amount as last summer. In addition, 5 percent of those same respondents installed a window air-conditioning unit this summer due to working from home. This number is equivalent to the number of Canadian households that installed air-conditioners over the entire period from 2013 to 2017.

This is a substantial increase in residential electricity consumption considering a single room AC unit can use up to 1500 watts. Even with offices beginning to open again, there remains a large population of workers who prefer working from home. According to the survey, based on their current teleworking experience, two-thirds of all participants expressed a preference to working from home.

From March 24th to October 31st, the Ontario Energy Board temporarily implemented a flat rate instead of the former time-of-use rates. The flat rate was slightly cheaper and provided financial relief to many Ontarians throughout the pandemic. However, the lockdown is nearing its end, and those working from home are wondering what their electricity bills will look like in a post COVID world. 

As restrictions ease, commercial buildings will also begin to consume more energy to meet HVAC guidelines to lessen possible transmission rates. HEPA filters, UVGI systems, and heat recovery devices are still not mandatory parts of HVAC systems but are recommended to reduce airborne transmission, which is another factor to consider when determining the potential increase of demand on the electric grid.

To retain balance ,government policy makers will need to consider this new timing of consumption. On a smaller scale, employers, building managers, and residents will need to take more accountability and responsibility for their electricity usage. Attention must be paid to time-of-use rates and the implementation of energy-efficient products such as LED bulbs and smart thermostats.

If you are a Class A customer in Ontario who can financially benefit from reducing energy during peak times, there are other solutions. With the summer season upon us, monitoring the energy consumption of the Ontario electric grid is one of Edgecom Energy's biggest priorities. Using AI, our pTrack™ software can proactively determine any sudden fluctuations in the Ontario electricity grid while also providing enough time to advise our customers to act.

For more information on how Edgecom Energy can help you monitor and reduce energy consumption, visit our website.

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