Keith Baker: How should our approach to energy use change post-lockdown?

“If the changes that have led to this new demand profile are good for renewable energy, are they good for people and society too, and if so, how can we encourage them to stick with us post-lockdown?”

IF YOU HAVE ANY INTEREST in how energy use and household behaviours have changed under lockdown, then this recent article from the Oxford University spin-out Joju Solar makes for fascinating reading. It points to how some of the changes we’ve all had to make could lead to our homes becoming greener and happier places to live, and with benefits that extend way beyond our doorsteps.

Of course, using less energy doesn’t necessarily equate to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, but the less we use the narrower the gap becomes between how much we’re emitting and how much more energy we need to generate from renewables to meet our climate change targets, and the current crisis has focussed attention on some ways our qualities of life have improved simply by doing less or doing things differently. These are lessons we can’t afford to unlearn as we start to emerge from lockdown.

Until now, the energy use profile of a typical household has followed a very predictable pattern. On an average weekday we would see an early morning spike in demand, peaking at 8am as householders get washed and dressed and make breakfast before leaving for work. This would be followed by a rapid decline before rising again to the 5-7pm evening peak in national energy demand as householders return home from work. This is a pattern that has held true for decades and no amount of smart technology or behavioural nudges intended to smooth out demand – for example, ‘load shifting’ the use of major appliances to make use of cheaper electricity during the day – has managed to flatten out the peaks. Also, from a demand management point of view, flattening the peaks is a highly desirable outcome as shifting more demand into the daytime means more of it can be met from renewables. However, lockdown has resulted in a massive change in that demand pattern in a matter of weeks.

In the mornings we are now seeing the 8am peak shifted to 9am, but rather than seeing a rapid decline as households empty, heating systems switch down, and washing machines put on before work complete their cycles, the decline is now much more gradual and never falls to pre-lockdown levels. More significantly, that evening peak has been shaved off, to the point that it never returns to the height of that morning spike. It’s still not a flattened curve, but it is a lot lower and smoother, and it also flattens and lowers the distribution of national demand for all energy uses, which has fallen by 7.5GW at 8am and by 4.5GW at 7pm. This is not entirely the result of lockdown as demand has fallen by similar amounts between 2013 and 2019 as the energy intensity of our economy has decreased, but lockdown has, at least temporarily, accelerated that trend.      

This has led us at Common Weal to ask, if the changes that have led to this new demand profile are good for renewable energy, are they good for people and society too, and if so, how can we encourage them to stick with us post-lockdown?

Fortunately, the Joju Solar study also looks at how the frequencies of our daily activities have changed, and how much people are now enjoying them, and here we see a number of striking changes.

One, presumably undesirable, change is that people are getting mankier – not only has our frequency of getting washed and dressed plummeted by more than 30 per cent, but our enjoyment of this daily ritual has fallen by a similar degree, and the number of showers we’re taken has fallen by more than 10 per cent, although we are enjoying them more than we used to. The suggestion here is that our daily ritual of getting washed and dressed has become less important now many of us are stuck at home without colleagues to impress, but we’re now appreciating a good soak more, or perhaps the time it gives us away from those we’re locked down with. (Although a recent snapshot survey by YouGov found that 27 per cent of people reported that lockdown has brought them closer to their family and loved ones, with 54 per cent reporting it has made no difference, and only 15 per cent reporting that it has pulled them apart – so maybe some of those showers are being shared?). 

The only other activity people reported enjoying less is screen time, even though the amount of time we’re spending watching Netflix has increased. This makes sense amongst an increasingly bored population, and is corroborated by the finding that although our enjoyment of reading, requiring a great deal more concentration than being fed content from a screen, has marginally increased, the frequency with which we’re picking up a book has fallen by almost as much as that of our washing and dressing habits.     

One finding that certainly chimes with my household is that we’re also making more hot drinks and enjoying them more and, contrary to what you may expect, there’s been a tiny reduction in how often we’re cooking, but again we’re enjoying food marginally more – although this might be related to the amount of alcohol we’re consuming alongside it. And even if we’re not bothering to get dressed as much, the use of washing machines is also up – and for some reason I can’t quite fathom, we’re enjoying doing the laundry more too.

And it’s not just changing our energy behaviours that is greening our homes. Gardening, and our enjoyment of it, has increased too. But perhaps the most striking finding is that, whilst furloughing has meant many people aren’t working, those who are still able to are enjoying it substantially more. Although the study doesn’t differentiate between homeworkers and those in essential jobs who are still going out to work, it’s hard not to think that this must relate to Marx’s theory of alienation. Essential workers, who we now finally recognise as including supermarket staff and delivery drivers, are getting more of the credit (if not the pay) they so richly deserve for keeping our society functioning. And for those now working from home, as well as the benefits to our qualities of life, there may well be an additional status attached to remaining at work whilst seeing colleagues in roles seen as less essential (I’m thinking particularly of ‘office managers’) are put out to pasture.

Obviously there are plenty of employees – teachers, solicitors, and hairdressers to name just a few – whose jobs lockdown has limited or made impossible and who will need to be able return to work as soon as possible, but let’s not pretend that ‘make work’ jobs, and the associated culture of presenteeism, are something we shouldn’t be glad to see the back of.

So, how can we accentuate the benefits lockdown has brought us? If we start with the changes in energy demand and the rise in job satisfaction then we have to start with home working and flexible working. As we at Common Weal have noted before, homeworking isn’t for everyone, but it does have many benefits. We can make it even more attractive by adapting our living conditions to facilitate it by building and retrofitting housing to create better and more flexible spaces for home offices, for example by reversing the trend in bedroom sizes to ensure a ‘double bedroom’ isn’t something you can just about squeeze a double bed into, and by improving broadband connections.

But as humans are inherently social creatures, we should be creating more shared remote working spaces within walking distance of homes. These would be rented by individuals or employers and fitted out with essential facilities – print rooms, private rooms for confidential calls, shower facilities for cyclists, and especially kitchens for all those hot drinks. Ideally, they would be purpose-built green buildings, but there is also huge potential to retrofit buildings whose occupancy rates have fallen as a result of the crisis – for example, the University of Edinburgh’s swathe of student accommodation that has been doubling up as lucrative income-generating accommodation for the now-cancelled festivals.

And with these new social hubs would come an opportunity for wider regeneration. The creation of ‘urban villages’, which combine medium-density housing and green space with essential services, has long been popular amongst both planners and environmentalists for reducing the need to travel and improving the quality of life for urban householders. With a bit of thought, cars, and crime, can be designed out of urban environments. And gardening, both through creating more homes with private gardens and through incorporating community gardens and allotments into these villages, should be at the heart of this post-Covid urban mini-revolution.

Inside and outside of urban areas, the key to this mini-revolution lies with providing affordable high-speed internet connections to everyone living and working in Scotland. Indeed, now that information poverty is increasingly recognised as a social condition, access to the internet, and being equipped with the necessary skills to do so, should be a basic human right. Not only is this fundamental for enabling flexible and remote working, but in this new age of social distancing it reduces the burden on public transport networks to accommodate all those, but particularly the most vulnerable, who need to make essential journeys, whilst disincentivising any return to using private cars and flying for business travel.

We should also not forget that one of the most noticeable benefits of lockdown has been cleaner, healthier air. So, whilst the scientific jury is still out on whether air pollution is a significant factor in the current pandemic, it would be foolish not to recognise the many benefits of reducing the amount of local air pollution emitted by private transport, and reducing our reliance on private transport is essential for tackling climate change too.

Looking beyond urban areas, Common Weal’s Common Home Plan details the massive untapped potential that lies in transforming Scotland’s land ownership and management practices to create jobs in sustainable, socially and economically productive industries, such as renewable energy and forestry, and many of these are Covid-proof jobs that are undertaken outside or can be carried out by remote workers. Not only do such jobs serve to build resilience into our economy and society, they also counter the problems caused by workers being increasingly alienated from the means of production.

That’s not to say that call centres should become a thing of the past, but ask yourselves how many times you have received a call from a company where the person on the other end has got in touch to help you solve a problem rather than trying to flog you more stuff, and consider how many of those employees would be better deployed in jobs that do more than simply add to their employer’s financial bottom line. And whilst we’re at it, let’s have more of those staff employed in Scotland, working from home (if they so wish), properly trained, paid respectable wages, and not penalised if they take too many toilet breaks.

Finally, what about those industries and services that have been most affected by the crisis – entertainment and tourism? Two of the things I’m most looking forward to when lockdown lifts are going out for a meal and escaping the UK for a week or two, but it remains to be seen how many bars, restaurants and hotels will have survived the crisis, and how many countries will want to welcome tourists from this virus-ridden country.

As regards the former, part of Common Weal’s plan for the post-Covid recovery is issuing vouchers to encourage people to get back out into their communities and put money back in the pockets of the bars and restaurants that are an essential part of the puzzle of how best to rebuild our economy in ways that create and preserve jobs and healthy, resilient communities. That’s an important start, but it only gets us so far.

Scotland, with its heavy reliance on tourism, must seize this opportunity to rebuild the industry in ways that work for its people. So, let’s use it to kiss goodbye to the cruise ships that do so much to pollute our environment whilst giving little back to the cities, such as Edinburgh, which they plague. For the sake of climate change and for the sake of local communities the cruise ship industry needs to end, full stop.

Aviation, which has proportionately lower per capita emissions than cruising but which, if it were a country, would rank in the global top ten for greenhouse gas emissions, needs to be carefully managed until (or if) aircraft using alternative fuels can be deployed at scale. In the short-term this should include rationing flights and improving the ground-based alternatives, and in the long term it could see a resurgence in the use of airships. And we should not be bailing out these companies without them making legally binding commitments to reducing their emissions, and whilst their CEOs live on private islands and pay their taxes outside the UK.

The problems brought by cheap flights haven’t gone away because of the crisis, and with the end of lockdown now looking in sight bookings have already rocketed. And even if everyone could be persuaded to opt for a staycation this year, whatever’s left of the accommodation industry and the rural communities that have struggled to fight off lockdown tourists, as well as members of the royal family and special advisors to the prime minister, would be overwhelmed. But we can reshape tourism through improving the capacity of public transport (aided by more of us working remotely), introducing long-overdue tourist taxes that more realistically reflect the costs of the industry to host cities and communities, and emphasising quality over quantity by restricting the numbers visiting key attractions and destinations, perhaps by a similar permit system to that used for national parks in the USA. Here again, better quality jobs with better pay and conditions work to combat alienation, as well as tackling climate change and reducing pollution.

And even all this is still only a snapshot of what needs to be done to ensure our post-Covid Scotland is one that works for our environment, economy and society. It’s a huge task but it is an achievable one, it just needs everyone to do their bit to make it a reality. Please join us.                    

Dr Keith Baker is a member of Common Weal’s Energy Working Group, a Co-founder of The Energy Poverty Research initiative, and a Researcher at the Built Environment Asset Management (BEAM) Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University.