Your Energy Bill Is Probably Climbing. Here’s Why.


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You’re doing your share to beat the virus: staying home if you are not an essential worker, venturing out only to shop or get a little exercise. As a result the lights are on all day, maybe you and your spouse are working by computer, perhaps the kids are attending classes that way, too. You’re cooking a lot more, streaming more movies on the TV.

All of that adds up to more energy use — quite a bit more, as I wrote today, citing researchers at Columbia University who measured electricity consumption in hundreds of New York City apartments. They found that, on weekdays, energy use was up by 7 percent overall, and by nearly 25 percent from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

But in New York and many other parts of the country, the weather is still relatively cool. If lockdowns continue into summer, what will happen when the heat and humidity soar and home air-conditioners are running all day? Cooling is the biggest energy drain in homes, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, accounting for about one-sixth of residential electricity use.

In normal times, during summer weekdays power consumption rises late in the day, said Christoph Meinrenken, a physicist and one of the Columbia researchers.

“There’s a big bump in the evening when people get home and try to cool down their bedrooms and other rooms,” he said. “Now imagine all of these people are home during the day.”

Utilities say that, so far, overall electricity consumption across the country is down, with increases in home use more than offset by sharp declines among shuttered industrial and commercial customers. They don’t foresee any systemwide problems should residential demand rise as the weather warms and say they are prepared if spikes in air-conditioning use strain distribution networks in residential neighborhoods.

The biggest effect may be on customers’ pocketbooks, especially among the millions of people who have lost jobs during the crisis.

Even now, some residential customers are seeing much higher bills. Dr. Meinrenken said that, in the study, which compared energy use during a week this month with one in March before the state-ordered lockdown, one in seven apartments had an increase of 50 percent or more.

Con Edison, the utility that provides power to New York, says it will not shut off power to customers who cannot pay their bills and will waive any new late-payment fees or charges for paying by credit card. Other utilities around the country have taken similar measures, at least until lockdowns are lifted.

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to rethink the way we live and work, so here’s something to consider for the post-corona world: a circular economy.

What does it mean? The idea is simply to reduce consumption, waste and pollution by keeping products in use.

That could be something as simple as borrowing books from a library, or something more novel, like leasing your clothes. For example, a Dutch jeans company, MUD, will lease you a pair for 12 months. When the year is up, you can keep them. But you can also exchange or return them for recycling.

That’s very different from our current “linear” economy, which extracts resources, turns them into products and then disposes of them — a cycle often called “take-make-waste.” You buy the jeans, wear them a while and then throw them away.

“What we’re really talking about is not sending things to landfills and instead finding other ways to keep that value in the economy,” said Jennifer Russell, an assistant professor of circular economy at Virginia Tech. “When we do that for products and materials, we can offset a lot of the negative environmental impacts that happen way upstream in the supply chain.”

Circular fashion isn’t the only way to reduce waste, though. By applying circular strategies to five key areas — cement, aluminum, steel, plastics and food — the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British nonprofit group that promotes sustainability, estimates we could nearly halve emissions from the production of goods, eliminating 9.3 billion tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide by 2050.

“Every time we avoid having to mine something, manufacture or ship it somewhere, we reduce the carbon footprint associated with that particular product or material,” Dr. Russell said. Her research suggests that circular practices could lead to a 79 percent to 99 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions per product in certain sectors.

Though the circular economy may seem revolutionary, Dr. Russell pointed out it’s quite the opposite. Until recently, darning socks and borrowing tools was the norm, rather than the exception.

“One hundred years ago, this would be common sense,” she said.

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