Pandemic Electric Bills Are Searing Hot, As Families Stay Home

Aug 17, 2020
Originally published on August 18, 2020 11:45 am

Summer temperatures in Glendale, Ariz., frequently climb to 110 degrees.

"I can go outside and scramble eggs on the sidewalk," says Glendale resident Leandra Ramirez. "That's crazy."

Air conditioning is essential. And now that she and her family are at home all day during the pandemic, Ramirez's AC is running around the clock.

With lights out in many offices and shuttered businesses, millions of people — both with and without jobs — are plugging in at home. Residential demand for power in the U.S. has soared, even as commercial and industrial use have declined.

Ramirez says her electric bill for July alone was $385. With four teenagers who just resumed online schooling from home, she expects her August bill to be even higher.

"We have a very full house," she says. "There's always a computer on and there's always an Xbox playing, and there's always a TV left on."

No one's leaving home, and more are sleeping in longer

Electric consumption offers a window into how families and businesses are weathering the pandemic. In ordinary times, home electricity use perks up in the morning as people wake up and start the coffee, then drops during the workday, when people leave for school, work and other activities. But the coronavirus has upended that predictable pattern.

"People are sleeping in, later into the day," says Tufts University economist Steve Cicala, who's been monitoring electric demand. "Then it's like a smooth increase over the course of the day because they're at home. And I think people are staying up a little bit later, too."

The pandemic has also blurred the usual distinction between weekday and weekend consumption patterns.

"I think this reflects what a lot of people are feeling," Cicala says with a rueful chuckle.

So far, the spike in home electricity use has not made up for the drop in commercial and industrial demand, so total consumption of electricity has declined. But Cicala says the gap is likely to narrow during the summer months, because of the demand for home air conditioning.

"Cooling an office where you have 25 people is going to require less energy than cooling 25 homes," he says.

Those attractive vaulted ceilings suddenly look expensive

Lisa Vrooman shares a tiny, 650-square-foot apartment in Philadelphia with her boyfriend, a dog and a cat. It seemed like plenty of space, she says, until they were all staying in virtually around the clock. Suddenly those vaulted ceilings were not so attractive.

"The ceilings make it feel like you're in a big space," Vrooman says. "But that's expensive to keep cool."

Vrooman, who's a post doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, says she was hit with an electric bill of $141 in June, an increase of 142% from the same month last year. She and her boyfriend have tried to economize. They're "drinking more icy drinks," she says, and doing other things to stay cool, rather than relying on the air conditioner alone.

And then there's the water bill

She feels fortunate she can afford to pay the higher bills, especially since she's not traveling or eating out much his summer. But she knows it's a real hardship for many people — especially those who have lost their jobs.

"If you have no income and you now need to have your family there all the time, it's got to be expensive," she says.

Vrooman's water bill has also increased, though not so dramatically.

"You're using your bathroom at home," she says. "We're washing our hands more because we're told to do that. Like, every time we walk the dog, we come in and wash our hands."

Water utilities around the country report an increase in residential demand during the pandemic. In Greeley, Colo., home water use is up 30% this year, while commercial use is essentially flat.

Much of that increase could stem from this year's hot, dry weather. But the pandemic is also playing a part.

"People were certainly at home and using water in ways they had not previously," says Sean Chambers, director of the city's water and sewer department.

'We're all still stuck at home. Did you miss the memo?'

Another residential bill that's going up is Internet service. Ramirez says since the pandemic began, her family keeps going over its data limit and she's had to pay their Internet provider for extra gigabytes.

"For the first few months, they weren't charging people for overages. But apparently, in their world, the pandemic ended in June," Ramirez says. "That's something I reached out to them about and said, 'Hey, we're all still stuck at home. Did you miss the memo?' "

Ramirez expects to remain stuck at home for the foreseeable future.

There are trade-offs for the extra expenses, she says. She likes being able to spend more time with her kids. And with no work clothes to wash, she is saving money on laundry.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So more than 3 million homes here in California could lose power during rolling blackouts. The power outages were ordered to ease pressure on the state's electric grid during a heatwave. It also comes as tens of millions of people are working from home nationwide, which means residential demand for power has soared. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Leandra Ramirez lives in Glendale, Ariz., where the high temperature in August can easily climb to 110 degrees.

LEANDRA RAMIREZ: I can go outside and scramble eggs on the sidewalk. Like, that's crazy.

HORSLEY: Air conditioning is essential. Ordinarily, the AC at Ramirez's house would get a break during the middle of the day when she goes off to work at a trucking company and her kids go to school, but not this summer.

RAMIREZ: Now it's running a constant 75 degrees every day because everybody is home, you know, and sitting in front of my laptop all day and the kids with their laptops, it just starts to get progressively warmer in that room every hour.

HORSLEY: Ramirez says her electric bill in July was $385. Her four teenagers just started back to online school from home, so she worries this month's bill will be even higher.

RAMIREZ: We have a very full house (laughter). There's always a computer on, and there's always an Xbox playing, and there's always a TV left on.

HORSLEY: Economist Steve Cicala of Tufts University has been studying electric consumption as a window on how families and businesses are weathering the pandemic. In ordinary times, home electricity use perks up in the morning as people wake up and start the coffee, then drops during the workday. Cicala says the coronavirus has upended that predictable pattern.

STEVE CICALA: People are sleeping in later into the day, and it's like a smooth increase over the course of the day because they're at home. And I think people are staying up a little bit later, too.

HORSLEY: So far, the spike in home electric use has not made up for the drop in commercial and industrial demand. But the gap is narrowing as home air conditioners are working overtime.

Lisa Vrooman shares a tiny apartment in Philadelphia with her boyfriend, a dog and a cat. It seemed like plenty of space until they were all staying there virtually around the clock. Suddenly, those vaulted ceilings were not so attractive.

LISA VROOMAN: The ceilings make it feel like you're in a big space, but that's expensive to keep cool.

HORSLEY: Vrooman, who's a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, says her electric bill in June was more than double last year's. She feels fortunate she can afford the increase, but she knows it's a real hardship for many people, especially those who've lost their jobs.

VROOMAN: If you have no income and you now need to have your family there all the time, like, it's got to be expensive.

HORSLEY: Vrooman noticed her water bill has gone up, too, perhaps from all the extra handwashing. Sean Chambers, who runs the water department in Greeley, Colo., says residential customers there are using 30% more water this year than last. He blames much of the increase on this year's hot, dry weather, but suspects the pandemic is also playing a part.

SEAN CHAMBERS: People were certainly at home using water in ways they had not previously.

HORSLEY: One other residential bill that's gone sky-high - Wi-Fi. Leandra Ramirez says since the pandemic began, her family keeps going over its data limit, and she's had to pay their Internet service provider for extra gigabytes.

RAMIREZ: For the first couple months, they weren't charging people for overages. But apparently, in their world (laughter), the pandemic ended in June. So that's something I reached out to them about and said, hey, we're all still stuck at home. Did you miss the memo?

HORSLEY: Ramirez expects to remain stuck at home for the foreseeable future. There are tradeoffs for all those extra expenses, she says. She likes being able to spend more time with her kids. And with no work clothes to wash, she is saving a bundle on laundry. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.