With more people working from home to help slow the spread of coronavirus, millions of Americans may see higher energy bills at the end of this month.
Last week, Austin Energy sent about 33,000 Austin, Texas, residents emails warning them that they’ve used significantly more electricity in recent days, reported the Austin American-Statesman. Data provided by the utility shows a 12% citywide increase in residential electricity use of March 7 compared with the week before.
So how much more energy would an average household use if residents go from in-office to at-home work?
“I think a reasonable upper estimate is that household energy use is no more than $0.50 per hour, so staying home for even 10 extra hours is less than $5 [per day],” estimates Severin Borenstein, an energy economist and director of the University of California Energy Institute.
That’s as much as $100 for an entire month of working from home. Put another way, that’s about 11 Netflix subscriptions.
His estimates are based on adding the costs of residential use of electricity, natural gas, and heating oil together, and then dividing that by the total number of households in the US, which is 128 million. Borenstein says he “made some extreme assumptions to make it as big an effect as possible.”
Even with an average, the number will depend on various factors such as the type of job, number of people at home, and people’s habits. “So there’s no one answer for everybody at all,” he says. “There are some people for whom that exceeds commuting costs, but I suspect for the vast majority of people, what they’re saving on and the commuting cost is greater than what it is costing them in extra energy costs.”
Even the range of people who share demographic characteristics and habits energy use is “often quite large” and varied, says Bruce Nordman, research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He says factors that will lead to higher energy consumption include living in a large suburban home as opposed to a city apartment, as well as use of heating and cooling systems.
What doesn’t necessarily lead to higher energy usage are electronics and lighting. Nordman gives the example of how a space heater may use 800 watts or even 1500 watts, whereas a notebook computer may use 20 watts.
Those who see a huge jump in their energy consumption reflects those “who are using their residences in new ways,” wrote Anne Marie Corbalis, a spokesperson for Con Edison, New York City-based utility company, in an email. Due to relatively mild early spring weather, the company says “it does not expect to have any service interruptions because of the coronavirus outbreak.” Last Friday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the shutdown of all unessential businesses and for 19.5 million New York residents to stay at home.
While the increases may be minimal, any extra costs could be an added financial burden for some, particularly in the context of the large layoffs happening. In response to the pandemic, some energy providers have suspended residential shutoffs or waived late fees.