At first, as the worldwide economy ground to a sudden halt, energy demand plummeted, causing oil markets to go haywire. OPEC+ almost immediately turned on each other causing a price war and global oil glut, and in North America oil prices did the previously unthinkable, with the West Texas Intermediate crude benchmark bottoming out way below zero, closing the day at nearly $40 in the hole. In the same month, energy consumption in the United States hit a stunning 16-year low.
Now, although oil markets have recovered in comparison to what some are calling Black April, the outlook is still bleak for fossil fuels. Energy consumption actually continued to get a lot worse, hitting a whopping 30-year low before leveling off. Demand has not fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, and energy consumption will remain impacted for a long time to come. As the months have passed, the complexity of what the pandemic has done to our energy consumption patterns has become more clear.
Some of these effects are no-brainers. Commercial and industrial energy consumption is down (consumption the commercial sector dropped by 11 percent and the industrial sector dropped by 9 percent year over year). Household energy consumption is up (8 percent nationally and an incredible 21 percent in Arizona and Michigan). But the big picture is a lot more complicated, and a lot more interesting.
A new study from Diana Sabau at CommercialCafe compares the second quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020 and analyses the contrast from a number of different angles. The study looks at the breakdown state-by-state, and the impact of COVID-19 on energy consumption is surprisingly diverse in different parts of the country. The state with the biggest drop in commercial energy consumption was Hawaii, which clocked a loss of 22 percent thanks in large part to the shutdown of the tourist sector and the islands’ energy-guzzling hotels and restaurants along with other hospitality-related businesses. Hawaii was followed by Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., which saw commercial energy consumption drop by 21% and 20%, respectively.
One of the interesting takeaways from this analysis is that the industrial sector’s plummeting energy usage would have been remarkably lower were it not for hospitals, which were running on overdrive and have the energy footprint to prove it. “Because treatments typically heavily rely upon electrical devices — such as heart and vital signs monitors; IV machines; sequential compression devices; ventilators and so on — energy consumption here has increased sixfold,” CommercialCafe reports.
The energy mix has also notably changed year over year, with renewables overtaking coal for the first time, and not by a small margin. Renewables beat out the notoriously dirty fossil fuel by 7 percent in the second quarter. Natural gas, however, remained supreme, accounting for about 40 percent of the total energy mix in the first half of this year.
This sudden and extreme change in the way that energy is consumed in the United States has led to great innovation. “With so much unused or underused space on the market, owners and investors are seeing renewed potential in adaptive reuses of these buildings,” Forbes reported this week. “For instance, thousands of square feet of office space in Boston, San Diego, Houston and New York are currently being converted into lab space as demand for this type of space has been growing since the onset of the pandemic.”
Other experts believe that this unprecedented interruption to the energy industry’s status quo is an invaluable opportunity to redirect the trajectory of energy around the world in order to better our means of production and consumption on the eve of catastrophic climate change. The bigwigs over at the World Economic Forum have advocated for the use of this cataclysmic shift in momentum to design and implement a “new energy order” and a “great reset.” With countries around the world planning green stimulus packages for post-pandemic economic recovery, it’s looking hopeful that one of the silver linings of this tragic pandemic will be a more intentional, efficient, and responsible energy landscape.