Q+A: How Does Working from Home Change the Way We Use and Conserve Energy?

home office

One of the many ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many Americans are working from home more often, or permanently. More time spent at home means using more energy to light, heat and cool it during the day, but it also means the office buildings – some of the world’s biggest energy consumers – are suddenly quite energy thrifty. These new patterns of energy – as they become more permanent trends – could create new opportunities for shifting to renewable energy sources, according to Simi Hoque, PhD, an associate professor of architectural engineering in Drexel University’s College of Engineering, who studies the way we use buildings and how it contributes to climate change.

Hoque has closely followed the ebb and flow of building use during the pandemic, looking specifically at how building design can affect the health of its occupants and how working from home affected people’s well-being during the pandemic. She recently shared her expertise on how building use affects energy consumption with the Drexel News Blog.

What sort of impact did the pandemic have on energy-use trends over the last year and a half?

The pandemic’s impact on energy trends was fairly consistent with what we expected. Since most people had to switch from office/commercial building-based work to home-based work, there was a significant decrease in electricity demand across the power grid in the U.S. and other countries. The reason for reduced energy demand was due to a reduction in typical work-activities, such as mobility, economic activity, construction and manufacturing.

The drop in electricity demand was the biggest drop since WWII.

This was particularly evident at the height of the lockdown, with decreases of up to 20% starting in early spring 2020 through the summer.

The recovery to pre-pandemic levels of demand was slow, meaning that many people and businesses are taking their time returning to full-time, in-person work at the office. Post-pandemic, we see a trend toward increased electricity demand, suggesting that the economy has recovered — growth in electricity consumption is directly related to economic growth. This is due to the general shift toward more energy-intensive industries, as well as demand for more air conditioning and appliances. 

alone working in office

What challenges did the shift in energy-use patterns during the pandemic pose for energy providers?

At the household level, energy consumption has increased overall during the lockdown because people were spending more of their day at home, working from home, online shopping, streaming entertainment, powering appliances and conditioning their homes.

The usual consumption curve for home energy use shows a peak in the morning and in the evening, with a dip during the workday (9 to 5, when people are typically at the office or at school). During lockdown, the home energy load profile during the weekday looked more similar to the load profile of the weekend (i.e. when household members are home doing home activities). One interesting trend is the peaks in the workday mornings and evenings were being differentially shifted to midday – i.e. the morning peak load is delayed, but it could not be accurately modeled and predicted.

This puts some stress on the power suppliers because it is difficult to manage a stochastic daily load pattern. Residential customers naturally had to deal with increased energy bills.

What could we expect to see in terms of energy and environmental impact if more people begin permanently working from home?

One positive outcome of the reduction in demand for electricity during the lockdown, which in the U.S. is generated primarily by natural gas and coal, is that it advanced the contribution of renewables in the power mix. The growth in renewable energy sector was the only growth across all energy sources (gas, oil, coal). The upshot of this growth is that global carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector also dropped, which is a positive impact on the climate crisis.

Unfortunately, this was not a sustaining trend, and as lockdown measures eased, the power mix went back to previous trends with coal and nuclear once again outpacing renewables. This rebound effect was also seen after the 2008 recession, so it seems we have not really learned how to hold on to our wins.

What are some strategies that could help rein in energy use if people are going to continue working from home through the end of the year?

Post-pandemic, the key challenges are going to be energy access, management and affordability, as more people choose to work from home. I think that smart home energy management systems are going to become more popular and home occupants are going to install systems that monitor energy use, air quality and provide feedback about how to optimize and control the home environment. 

Media interested in speaking with Hoque should contact Britt Faulstick, assistant director of media relations, at 215.796.5161 or bef29@drexel.edu.

Tagged with: