On a typical workday, residential Con Ed customers use electricity in a pretty reliable pattern: there's usually a bump in the morning when they wake up, a dip while they're at work, and then another bump when people get home in the evening. But that changed when New York shut down in March and people were told to stay home to stop COVID-19 from spreading.
“If you compare in early April, the electricity consumption during the nine to five hours in people's homes, it's 23 percent higher than before the stay at home order went into place,” said Christoph Meinrenken, a physicist and researcher at the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
In 2018, Meinrenken and his team installed meters in about 400 Manhattan homes in order to survey people’s habits with using electricity. But while it started as a study on energy conservation, it's given his team a glimpse into how those habits have changed from spending more time at home, down to the minute.
“All of a sudden, you can see that the ramp up of electricity in the morning when it starts increasing happens later,” said Meinrenken. “They can afford to sleep maybe a little bit longer because they don't have to commute anymore.”
Most New Yorkers are used to their electric bills going up during the summer, when we're using fans and air conditioners more. In most years, the majority of the electricity used during the day comes from New York City’s commercial districts, and power lines in those neighborhoods are designed to carry the load. But some experts are concerned that the sustained demand in residential neighborhoods due to the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to more brownouts and even blackouts.
“Air conditioners are one of the single largest uses of electricity in most residential homes. That's going to stress the grid,” said Rory Christian, an energy consultant.
So far, Con Ed representatives claim there’s not much to worry about, yet. The utility company did invest in shoring up residential power supply after Hurricane Sandy, and spokesman Alan Drury says the company expects usage to start going back to normal as the city continues reopening.
However, Drury says the company is considering the possibility that the pandemic could lead to many people continuing to work from home in the future, which could require Con Edison and other utilities to rethink where they funnel future investments. “So even once the pandemic is over, you could see more demand for power during the day in residential areas than before,” he said.
However, Meinrenken isn’t convinced that New York City’s reopening process will actually ease the load on power grids in residential neighborhoods. He says there are several factors at play that could affect the power grid in the months ahead, including how hot it gets over the next few summer months, and whether more New Yorkers are allowed—or are willing—to return to the office. But even though some businesses and office buildings are now allowed to reopen, Meinrenken says the data his team has collected suggest it hasn’t done much yet to balance things out.
“Those fewer people who still worked from home, now when it got hot in June during the day, consumed so much more electricity that that offset the benefit of some people going back to work,” Meinrenken said. “How that will actually play out is difficult to project.”
Last summer, under more normal conditions, New York City saw multiple blackouts that left thousands of New Yorkers without power. This led to Governor Andrew Cuomo lashing out at the privately-owned utility and threatening to revoke its license to operate as a monopoly in New York City. "You can change a utility company if they don't perform," he said.
Fast forward to January 2020, when state regulators approved a $1.2 billion Con Ed rate hike over the next three years for customers in New York City and Westchester.