Jackson JRF Dr Phillip Grunewald Researching Impact of Lockdown on Activity and Energy Demand

  • Bar graph showing activities during UK lockdown
30 April, 2020

Jackson Junior Research Fellow in Energy, Dr Phil Grunewald, is conducting research into how the current COVID-19 lockdown is affecting activities and energy use across the UK.

In partnership with organisations including the Environmental Change Institute, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the National Grid, and the UK Energy Research Centre, Phil and his team are asking the public to track their activities.

Phil's team are constantly studying activity patterns to understand societal changes, including enjoyment and energy use. Obviously, our activity patterns are disrupted at the moment and they hope to learn from the ways in which people are affected. While lockdown has been in place, they have already seen dramatic changes in demand - 10-20% more energy is needed in households, while national electricity demand is at the lowest levels for decades. You can help them to learn from these changes and observe how persistent they are by going to JoyMeter.uk and filling out a survey and logging 26 of your everyday activities.

If you want to find out more about what Phil and his team have already learned, and find out more about their goals, you can read a blog post from Phil below.

What the lockdown can teach us about our energy future

by Dr Phillip Grunewald

Some parts of the media celebrate record low energy demand, the longest spell of coal free electricity since 1882 and emission factors below 100gCO2/kWh. Let's be clear, a national lockdown with devastating effects for the economy and mental health is not a blueprint for how we want to go about energy demand reduction. In fact, many households won't see demand reductions at all - their bills will go up while they work, care and educate from home. However, we can look for long term opportunities among the current disruption.

As in most major upheavals, we are suddenly reminded of the things that matter most. A time to re-prioritise and re-think our future. Much speculation focusses on the lasting legacy of this global pandemic. Will we become a more caring, considerate and just society, or will the economic harm serve as a justification for recovery at all costs, including environmental and social?

There is much to be hopeful about. We have bimbled towards a climate catastrophe for decades, often referring to the old 'oil tanker' analogy that societal change of the required scale takes time. COVID-19 has proven that comprehensively wrong.

While those oil tankers are now aimlessly drifting off the US gulf coast with their unwanted cargo on board, many societies have shown what change they are capable of - especially with far-sighted political leadership. Not unlike climate change, it has taken some longer to respond than others, but most leaders have taken decisive action. That should give us great hope.

Can we learn from the response to COVID-19 for our response to climate change? Both exhibit a runaway effect - not acting now means much tougher actions and consequences later. Both rely on a recognition of the common good - my own ('insignificant') actions will affect many others (significantly!). And both should make us turn to science for leadership.

Sadly, science has been poorly used in both cases. On climate change some interest groups have vigorously argued that the science is ambiguous, whereas with COVID-19, governments like to be guided by 'the' science. We don't know the composition of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), but if they deliver 'the' science, chances are that this is not a sufficiently multidisciplinary panel.

A virologist can advise on potential infection rates and death toll. A sociologist may consider the societal impact of the lockdown.

Ask an economist, and their guidance will probably involve GDP.

Engineers may advise on the rate of producing ventilators and PPE.

All of them currently work with incomplete data, unprecedented circumstances and plenty of assumptions and diverging theories.

Seldom has a broad multidisciplinary approach been needed more. There is no shame in acknowledging that many sciences point in many directions. That shouldn't stop politicians from reflecting carefully on this range of information.

For energy researchers the current lockdown provides a unique opportunity to learn how we cope with change. We have studied energy use over the years and the change we currently see is unprecedented. National energy demand is at record lows. However, this comes at an unsustainable cost for the economy and the wellbeing of society and is not how we want to go about energy demand reduction in the long term.

But while new patterns are emerging, we can assess which of them are worth keeping. Having reduced transportation by 83%, do we need to return to the same level as before? For whom and how often is working from home actually a preferable option? Do virtual meetings allow us to be more inclusive? And what happened to our sense of health? All that new found exercising and focus on better food. These changes have affected our energy use, often for the better. Some of them are worth keeping, others help us appreciate how valuable energy services are in our lives.

Aside from the social impact and the general importance of energy, we are interested in the timing and flexibility of demand. Flexibility can become a crucial asset when increasingly relying on renewables and storage. Our current mass experiment can reveal which activities change and if a new normal can be established after the lockdown. Working from home introduces new stresses, but also opens up some new found flexibility.

To observe this we combine smart meter data with national activity records. You can help by submitting your own lockdown-diary: record 26 activities with https://www.JoyMeter.uk and help us learn from these unprecedented times.