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What can the lockdown teach us about our energy future?

Help Oxford researchers to understand current UK household energy demand and opportunities for a more flexible, renewable future.

Parts of the media are celebrating the record low national energy demand, the longest spell of coal-free electricity since 1882 and emission factors below 100gCO2/kWh. But 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.

For energy research fellow Dr Phil Grunewald and his Oxford team at the METER project, the current lockdown provides a unique opportunity to learn how we cope with change. Having studied household energy use and its flexibility over the years, the changes they currently observe are unprecedented. Forget the old ‘oil tanker’ analogy that societal change of the required scale to mitigate climate change 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, new patterns of consumption are emerging.

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. 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 importance of energy in our lives, our researchers are interested in the timing and flexibility of demand. Flexibility can become a crucial asset when increasingly relying on renewables and storage. The METER mass study can help 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 new found flexibility.

Phil comments “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 researchers are keen to collect as much data as possible during these unusual times, and as lockdown is relaxed. 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.

And registering with the app gives you the chance to win a full year’s free electricity!

For further information, visit https://www.joymeter.uk/about.php or email Phil.

Philipp Grunewald is an energy researcher collecting activity data to explain energy use in UK households. He is an interdisciplinary research fellow at the University of Oxford, where he leads the METER project on the understanding of household energy use and its flexibility.