The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Impact On The Electricity Sector

Researchers in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering created a unique data hub to track the pandemic’s impact on the electricity sector.
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Researchers in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University sought to answer how energy consumption has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic through the creation of a cross-domain, open-access data hub.

Created by Professor Le Xie and collaborators, the Coronavirus Disease – Electricity Market Data Aggregation+ (COVID-EMDA+) hub combines data across disciplines that showcases how human and environmental habits have impacted electricity usage.

COVID-EMDA+ incorporates seemingly extraneous information that turns out to be quite important to understand the impact of work-from-home policies and social distancing guideliens on the electricity sector. The data hub contains five major components: electricity market data, public health data, weather data, mobile device data and nighttime light satellite data.

“Weather definitely affects electricity usage,” Xie said. “For instance, Texas had quite a hot summer. So, although everyone was quarantining inside, the month of August saw a surge in energy consumption from air conditioners.”

The GPS location of mobile devices, a dataset that has never before been used in the analysis of the electricity sector, helps illustrate patterns in mobility, such as how many people are social distancing versus how many people are still visiting shopping centers.

side=by-side maps of new york city showing levels of nighttime light in new york city before and after the pandemic
City light at night in Manhattan was dimmed by about 40% between February and April.
Courtesy of Le Xie

Human mobility became an even greater factor in understanding electricity consumption once NASA published nighttime satellite images of large cities. When looking at images of Houston and New York City lit up at night from before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the stark contrast is clearly visible. In Manhattan alone, the city light at night was dimmed by about 40% between February and April. This meant that as quarantine progressed, fewer people were venturing outside in the evenings. Less human mobility meant less electricity needed to keep the busy cities lit.

The research uncovered a key finding: mobility is a strong indicator of electricity consumption changes.

“In New York, the strongest indicator of electricity consumption is the visits to the retail sector – the shopping malls and grocery stores,” Xie said. “We didn’t realize how much that impacts electricity consumption.” When visits to the retail sector decrease, electricity consumption plummets.

Moving forward, Xie hopes to incorporate data regarding socioeconomic status to shed more light on how the pandemic has impacted economically disadvantaged communities.

“Someone who works minimum wage on an hourly basis will be affected much differently than someone who does not have to worry about their next paycheck,” Xie said. The hub can serve as a unique lens to examine questions related to socioeconomic disparities, and hopefully uncover areas of energy poverty, where families may have trouble accessing reliable and affordable energy.

The data hub is updated daily after careful quality control to provide the most up-to-date information to the public. Xie and his team hope the hub can serve as an open-access tool for system operators, as well as for state and federal policy makers. Not only will it help policymakers make more informed decisions when it comes to allocating resources, but it will also help society become more aware of how much energy we consume and how we consume it.

“It helps everyone to be more energy conscious and cognizant, especially during this once-in-a-lifetime societal crisis,” Xie said.