UK electricity demand falls on coronavirus lockdown

power lines

With the nation on lockdown in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the energy sector has been scrambling to meet a rapidly changing electricity demand. We explore why UK electricity demand has decreased, as well as the impact this has on the energy industry, you as a consumer and the environment.

For up-to-date information regarding the development of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, consult official sources like the World Health Organization and the UK government.

With millions of residents now confined to their homes in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, UK electricity demand has taken a turn. While domestic consumption has increased as people stay at home, overall demand has fallen due to the substantial reduction in commercial and industrial activities.

With the closing of factories, offices, bars and restaurants across the country, electricity demand has dropped by around 10%, reported National Grid ESO (Electricity System Operator).

The main difference in consumption comes in the morning with a drop of up to 18%. This is when people would typically be getting up and getting ready to go to work or school at the same time.

So what impact does this decrease in demand have on your supply? Let’s have a look at what these new and unfamiliar daily routines mean for the electricity network and the environment, as well as how this affects you as a consumer.

How does this impact the grid?

Engineers at the National Grid are working in control rooms to balance the decrease in UK electricity demand with production. Electricity cannot be stored, so it must be used as it is made - use it or lose it, as the saying goes.

While you may assume that managing a smaller amount of electricity would make the lives of system operators easier, it actually involves different challenges, for which the National Grid says it is prepared.

According to Roisin Quinn, National Grid ESO Head of Control Room, “It’s just as important for us to manage lower demand for electricity as it is to manage peak demands. It’s a different set of challenges that we plan for and are used to dealing with.”

Electricity system operators must maintain the frequency and voltage of the system at stable levels. This involves making immediate decisions to ensure that the exact amount of electricity being consumed matches the amount being generated.

In addition to managing the overall decrease in UK electricity demand, operators must also prepare for peaks when the demand changes rapidly. Following the Queen’s address on Sunday, 5 April, electricity usage surged as viewers made cups of tea and opened the fridge at the same time. This is referred to as a TV pickup.

According to National Grid ESO, system operators had to draw on 500-600MW of electricity generation – what it takes to boil about 300,000 kettles.

Managing greener energy and grid stability

wind turbine

With the overall drop in UK electricity demand, fossil-fuel generation can be halted, and a higher share of the electricity produced can come from renewable sources, like wind and solar power.

According to Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, “the recent drop in electricity demand fast-forwarded some power systems 10 years into the future, suddenly giving them levels of wind and solar power they wouldn’t have had otherwise without another decade of investment in renewables.”

Unlike traditional power plants, these sources are not predictable or consistent, as they depend on weather conditions. System control operators face this challenge when maintaining grid stability.

When wind and solar are producing a larger proportion of UK electricity demand, systems must be flexible enough to quickly increase other sources of generation if the wind stops blowing or the sun goes down.

Hydroelectric power stations have an advantage over other types of renewable sources. They can quickly react to provide electricity in a matter of seconds by draining reservoirs. This can be particularly useful for peak situations like a ‘TV pickup’.

During this time, system operators can hopefully improve how to manage these renewable sources as the UK moves forward with its transition to become carbon neutral by 2050.

How are electricity providers affected?

Energy suppliers are bracing to take a financial hit in response to the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Financial Times, analysts fear that some gas and electricity suppliers will be forced to close due to the significant drop in UK electricity demand and the expected rise in ‘bad debts’ from customers unable to pay their energy bills.

Energy UK, the trade body for UK energy suppliers, has asked the government to create a loan scheme worth £100 million per month to help gas and electricity suppliers support customers during this time of crisis.

Suppliers would use the loan to offer financial support to vulnerable customers and businesses struggling to pay their gas and electricity bills in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The companies would return the funds once customers are able to resume payments.

Are consumers affected by the overall decrease in UK electricity demand?

While some media platforms suggested that residents should prepare for power outages during the coronavirus outbreak, electricity experts say you have nothing to worry about.

“We have one of the most reliable electricity networks in the world, supported by stringent contingency plans and a workforce of 36,000 people. We’re keeping your energy flowing during the coronavirus pandemic and the network is operating exactly as it should.”

David SmithChief Executive of Energy Networks Association

A slight silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic is that you are using cleaner energy since a higher proportion is coming from renewable sources. Some customers on feed-in tariffs were even paid to use electricity during the daytime as favourable weather generated a surplus of renewable energy. Octopus Energy customers on the provider’s agile tariff were paid between 0.22p and 3.3p per kWh of electricity used last Sunday between 11 am and 4 pm.

The wholesale price of energy has also decreased in response to the drop in UK electricity demand. Customers on variable tariffs could see a drop in the price they pay for electricity. However, it’s more likely that your home energy bills would increase as you spend more time at home in response to the coronavirus.

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