Electricity pylons. Pic: Matthew Henry for Unsplash

Covid-19: Oxford researchers track how daily energy use has changed during lockdown

 4 mins | By Antony David
 | Energy | Infrastructure | Sustainability | May 16th 2020

As a large portion of the population has shifted to working from home, there have been unprecedented changes in patterns of activity and energy use. An Oxford University research project is using this unique period to track behaviour and energy use to inform decisions about how to organise for energy provision in a post-lockdown world.

The METER project, led by Dr Philipp Grunewald at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI), is gathering data from participants using its Joymeter app to track their energy use alongside daily activities.

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Dr Philipp Grunewald. Pic: supplied.

Grunewald explains:

“We learn a lot from the lockdown about energy use and flexibility. The disruption of our lives has resulted in major shifts of activity patterns. For example, we observe a one-hour shift in the morning and significantly reduced activities during the evening peak when we used to be most frantic. Is this our more natural rhythm? Can it reduce peak demand? How will it change in the long term?”

The Joymeter app which works on iOS and Android devices, asks users to record their activities through the day providing a range of options to track activity at different times. Around 300 users are reporting with the app, and Grunewald aims to have over 2,000.

Tracking different types of activities has produced interesting results. Those which are ‘food-related’, for example, have emerged as the strongest predictive variable for the timing of electricity demand.

Daily patterns of activity have also changed for many people during lockdown. On average people are starting their day later, getting busier during the morning and slowing down in the early evening, all of which are expected to significantly impact timings on energy use.

Joymeter lockdown rhythm. Pic: Oxford University.

The impact on the UK demand for electricity during lockdown has been dramatic (see graph below). This additional reduction is roughly equivalent to the last six years worth of energy savings. Thanks to the sunny and windy weather in March and April this year, CO2 emissions of the UK’s energy use are among the lowest recorded and the country has just enjoyed the longest spell of coal-free electricity since 1882 with the CO2 emission factor dropping below 100g per kilowatt hour.

Joymeter electricity demand. Pic: Oxford University.

The huge drop in all types of transport use – preliminary results from the survey suggest these have dropped by more than 80 per cent –  means that the use of fossil fuels in internal combustion and jet engines is also contributing much less. The precipitous fall in oil prices is clear evidence of this.

Aside from the social impact and the importance of energy in our lives, Grunewald and his team are interested in the timing and flexibility of energy demand. Flexibility can become a crucial asset when increasingly relying on renewables and storage. A government commission set up to look at the UK’s future needs for nationally significant infrastructure recently reported that up to £8.1 billion could be saved if we became ‘smarter’ about electricity, including the use of electricity at down times rather than at peak times. The METER mass study can help to reveal which activities change, and whether a new normal can be established after the lockdown. Working from home introduces new stresses, but also opens up new-found flexibility.

Dr Sarah Darby, Leader of the ECI’s Energy programme, said:

“The METER project is making a great contribution to the work of our Energy Programme, where we focus on energy demand, the development of smarter systems, policy and governance. We know surprisingly little about how people’s activities influence electricity demand from hour to hour, minute to minute. But it’s increasingly important to understand it, in order to match demand with supply without over-straining the networks. Dr Grunewald is doing very imaginative, detailed work with the help of hundreds of people in their homes, while contributing to the big picture of how our electricity system could develop.”

Professor Jim Watson, Director of the UK Energy Research Centre, which is a partner organisation for the METER project, added: “We still don’t know enough about the social, economic and behavioural drivers of electricity consumption in our homes. This exciting new project will significantly improve knowledge about the opportunities and limits to change, and help us identify new approaches to shifting or reducing consumption.”

About the Author

Antony David

A chemistry graduate, Antony spent most of his career using and then making equipment for the music and broadcast industries. He was managing director of Oxford-based electronics and software company, Solid State Logic.

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