Tyrone Burke, November 12, 2020
Photo credit: Luther Caverly, file photos

Carleton Researcher Finds The COVID-19 Pandemic Could Be Changing Electricity Demand in Ontario – And Not For The Better

The office workers of the world deserted their cubicles, almost in unison. And if they forgot to shut down their computer on their way out the door, it could very well still be running. The pandemic changed almost every aspect our daily lives, so it is no surprise that the way we are using electricity is different than it was before.

Liam O'Brien sitting on a stool looking out a window
Liam O’Brien, Associate Professor in Architectural Conservation and Sustainability Engineering in Carleton’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“Home energy use has increased significantly, and the pattern of use is also different,” says Liam O’Brien, an Associate Professor in Architectural Conservation and Sustainability Engineering in Carleton’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

O’Brien has been awarded an NSERC Alliance Grant to study the effects that the pandemic has had on electricity use in Ottawa. He’s working with Ottawa Hydro and Ottawa Community Housing to identify changes in the profile of demand in the city, with a focus on how telework impacts patterns of household demand.

“Morning electricity peaks start a little bit later in the day – there is no longer a rush to get into the office at a certain time. But there is more home energy use in the middle of the day. Because people are doing things they were not doing before, like laundry and home cooking. They are also more dependent on their furnace and air conditioner to stay comfortable.”

At the same time, office buildings have continued to use electricity day and night – even though they are now virtually empty. “Their energy use has not decreased all that much. Office buildings are still being heated, cooled and ventilated, as they always have been. And office equipment like printers and computers are still on, because a lot of that type of equipment runs all the time.”

In Ontario, peak energy demand has an especially significant impact on our carbon footprint.

“Our grid is generally pretty low emissions, but not so much during periods of peak use,” says O’Brien.

“We rely mainly on nuclear power plants, hydroelectricity, and to some extent the wind. But during peak times, our additional energy needs are satisfied using natural gas. During the pandemic, people’s behaviour is changing when peak use occurs, and that’s where the emissions can go up quite a bit.”

O’Brien has been studying the environmental impact of telework since before the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2018, he received $350,000 in NSERC funding to study the environmental impacts of telework. His research team has been working on monitoring project that is measuring energy by office workers in their home and offices, as well as for transportation and communication. They’re aiming to provide empirical evidence of whether telework is actually more sustainable than office-based work.

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