Home alone

During the COVID-19 crisis, there have been periodic reports (including this blog) on the way that electricity demand has changed. While the focus has been on lower demand overall due to lower economic activity, there are also signs of a changing load shape, as working from home, or distributed working, leads to different patterns of use. US market operators are seeing later morning peaks (it’s winter turning into spring over there, so the load curve is similar to Tasmania with early morning and late afternoon peaks) and increased afternoon usage. With predictions that both employers and employees will see the benefits of distributed working leading to a rise in this trend once we are through the crisis, what are its long-term implications?

Australia could be particularly well suited to such a shift, since we have so much residential rooftop PV and the usage patterns of people working from home will fit quite well with daytime solar output. If this sees more household PV output being used  rather than exported this could allow distribution networks struggling with high export volumes to breathe sigh of relief.

Interest in household solar and battery packages could increase – that’s what the industry hopes anyway. This could be due to households looking for ways to save on their increased energy bills. A US estimate that distributed working could increase a household’s consumption by 30 per cent looks a bit high, but there certainly be an increase. It could also be due to a perception that this could deliver increased reliability, which may be a priority for distributed workers who need to be available without interruption through the working day. The criticism faced by network businesses for carrying out essential mechanism as a sign of the increased value being placed on electricity supply by households at this time.

Conversely, taking away the daily commute may reduce interest in and usage of electric vehicles (EVs). But it may make it easier to shift when EVs are charged for those that do have them.

At the macro level, generators and transmission operators will likely see little difference as we trade-off mor residential demand for less commercial demand. Once the economy recovers though there could be a modest increase in overall energy demand, given it’s undoubtedly more efficient to heat or cool a typical office building than the hundreds of individual homes that have become the alternative workplace. While most distribution networks will also see the change as swings and roundabouts, CitiPower which has a small service area focussed on Melbourne’s CBD and a few inner suburbs would see a significant drop in demand. Fortunately for them, they are regulated via a revenue cap so are insulated from such changes.

Of course, this is all speculative at the moment. There are many good reasons why we didn’t take up distributed working before the virus struck, even though the technological tools were already in place. These include the sense of separation and isolation from colleagues alluded to in the title to this piece. But it will certainly be worthwhile for the electricity sector to track what actually does happen once the virus is behind us.