Lessons from lockdown: how we adapted and changed our energy consumption patterns during the pandemic

19 July, 2023

Dr Beatriz Aguirre-Martínez

Reading time: 5 minutes

The pandemic lockdowns were different and difficult – but they tested our ability to adapt as human beings and as communities.

The various lockdowns we endured during the pandemic were different and difficult. Still, they all had something in common: they tested our ability to adapt as human beings and as communities.

Among the many factors that changed for us during lockdowns, we could all agree that the chances are our energy consumption patterns shifted. We spent more time at home, using electricity and appliances, sometimes enduring cold winters.

In the CREDS From Crises to Net-Zero webinar this July, researchers from University College London’s Energy Institute, the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the University of Sussex, and Lancaster University delivered exciting results from data analysis of energy use in buildings and households in the UK during the pandemic.

Dr Gesche Huebner, one of this project’s leading researchers, explained the pandemic’s relevance as a unique opportunity to study energy demand. The results of the team’s analysis shed light on energy use and energy-related behaviours during the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis, and the important lessons this period gave us to work on future efforts to reduce energy demand and contribute to decarbonisation and the advancement of net-zero targets.

Unique opportunities to study behaviour change in energy use

The recent crises created two instances of events that became opportunities to study behaviour change in society. The first instance was the drastic change in our behaviour from one moment to another: everything was closed, we adapted to work and study remotely and took special measures for leaving the house. We became isolated for, at times, indefinite periods, not to mention the serious long-term health consequences for the population.

The second instance concerns the increase in energy prices due to global economic shocks, the war in Ukraine and people’s adjustments to price peaks. CREDS researchers explored these two factors from a range of standpoints.

What does the data reveal about our energy consumption patterns during the lockdowns

One of the main periods of analysis was the first lockdown that happened in springtime, between March and May 2020. Dr Gesche Huebner spoke about how changes in behaviour were reflected in changed clothing choices for comfort, but less so in terms of space heating, hot water usage, and total energy demand in buildings.

Interestingly, according to UK official data, there was hardly any difference in energy consumption in buildings and households before and during the lockdown, despite people using more appliances, such as laptops and TVs when confined to their homes. At the same time, and quite surprisingly, there was no increase in space heating demand, confirmed by many interviews and national data.

There was a small increase in hot water usage during all lockdowns. In the third lockdown, which took place in winter, information from 100,000 boilers suggested no increase in space heating but rather a small decrease, after correcting for the weather. This was an unexpected result, given that we spent all our time at home.

Instead, households’ self-reported data showed that people engaged in comfort actions to keep themselves warm: wearing warmer clothes, using blankets and/or drinking hot beverages. Data analysis also suggested a strong correlation between keeping warm and well-being.

In contrast, during the cost of living crisis, survey data showed a huge decrease in thermostat settings, with people putting in increased effort to save energy, and heating turned off more frequently.

What does this mean for decarbonisation and net-zero goals?

The two instances explored have huge implications for learning about energy use, decarbonisation, and the design of policies contributing to net zero carbon goals.

Some of the results from the data analysis come as a surprise. Certainly, one would not expect space heating to remain constant before and during the lockdown. It might be that people tried to compensate for the anticipated increase in space heating that would come from staying indoors all day by first getting warm using other sources and leaving their energy consumption constant, possibly because nobody knew how long the situation would last.

Other underlying factors caused significant economic uncertainty: some people faced job uncertainty and entered furlough schemes and the country was still going through a period of political and financial instability.

In other words, individuals dealt with uncertainty by being more careful about energy consumption. However, the distributional impacts of lockdowns and changes in energy use were significant, and this brings forward a different debate. Since the results found a correlation between well-being and keeping ourselves warm, how much a person should endure during difficult periods and ‘suffer through it’? Should there should be policies to cover those extra energy costs in periods such as a pandemic for those in need?

Some people might not have proper isolation in their household and some might not be able to pay the extra energy costs of working from home while others can easily adjust to additional energy expenses. As is often the case, the consequences of a crisis are not felt evenly.

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