- Global lockdowns caused a slump in electricity demand unparalleled since the Great Depression, according to the IEA.
- Electricity usage typically fell by up to 20% for each month a nation’s lockdown persisted.
- Weekday patterns of consumption came to resemble “a prolonged Sunday”.
- The pandemic has also fuelled a rise in the use of renewable energy.
The dramatic impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on global electricity use is vividly illustrated by new data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which shows a slump in demand unparalleled since the Great Depression.
As offices, schools, shops and factories were forced to close, weekday patterns of consumption came to resemble a quiet Sunday, the IEA says. Despite an increase in demand from people working at home, overall consumption fell by a fifth for every month a lockdown lasted.
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Here are three charts that illustrate the full impact of lockdowns on our energy use.
1. Fall in demand
Over half the world’s population – more than 4 billion people – have been subjected to lockdowns since the pandemic began, causing a sharp drop in economic output. The World Bank says the global economy will shrink by over 5% this year, the biggest contraction since World War II.
One of the effects of this slowdown has been a collapse in electricity demand. The IEA says usage typically fell by up to 20% for each month a nation’s lockdown persisted. Demand in China, the first nation to implement a lockdown, fell by 6.5% in the first quarter.
France, India, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and the north-western region of the United States all saw consumption fall by at least 15% during lockdowns – although in Italy, at the height of its outbreak, electricity demand was down by as much as 75% at times.
Although domestic demand soared by up to 40% as people worked from home, the increase came nowhere near to offsetting the effects of closing businesses, especially in the service sector. The stricter the lockdown, the greater the impact, according to IEA data.
Overall energy use is expected to be down by up to 6% this year, seven times the impact of the 2008 financial crisis, even if lockdowns are lifted more widely.
2. Every day like Sunday
With commercial users shut down, the IEA says that for weeks during the height of the pandemic, the pattern of weekday demand resembled “a prolonged Sunday”, with morning and evening peaks reflecting domestic routines and mealtimes.
Instead of a typical high-demand weekday pattern, consumption slowly converged on the consistent pattern of the weekend. The IEA chose Spain, which implemented very strict lockdown conditions, to illustrate the pattern, but says the same applied across all locked-down nations.
Analysis by Fortune magazine found the pattern of electricity usage showed how people’s behaviour changed during lockdown, with more people staying up later, enjoying a lie-in most mornings, taking a break mid-afternoon and spending the evening in front of the TV.
3. Rising renewables
Good news has been in very short supply during the pandemic, but when it comes to electricity generation, lockdowns have fuelled the rise of low-carbon energy. Having overtaken coal last year, renewable sources of energy are predicted to account for 40% of generation in 2020.
Their dramatic rise during the pandemic is partly down to the fact that you cannot simply shut down a wind or solar farm in the same way that you can turn off a gas-fired power station when demand falls. In fact, the IEA has reported a sharp decline in the amount of gas used to generate electricity in recent months.
Renewables now account for a record amount of energy, with wind and solar doubling their share in just five years. Even a rapid recovery from the COVID-19 crisis would not slow the rise of renewables now, according to the IEA, thanks to new projects in the pipeline.
The rise in the use of renewables reduced global CO2 emissions by more than 5% in the first quarter of this year. It predicts an unprecedented annual decline in emissions of 8% this year, back to the level of 10 years ago.