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How COVID-19 has inadvertently tested us on the journey to net-zero

One of the most noticeable impacts of the pandemic on our society has been the dramatic changes to how we live and work. Government stepped up its guidelines on 23 March, encouraging workers where possible to work from home. Small and large businesses alike, across many sectors, have either drastically adapted working practices to enable remote working or they have temporarily shut down operations.

These dramatic changes have introduced a significant shock to our energy system at a critical time as it continues to transition to a low carbon, net-zero future. This is because even in these very early days of our COVID-19 response, we see these short term measures affecting the UK’s daily power demand in three different ways:  

  • The morning peak in demand has diluted: with so many of us now either working from home, or in some cases not able to currently perform our jobs, morning routines have fragmented. As a result, demand is longer so concentrated around 8am as before. 

  • Mid-afternoon demand has weakened: demand has significantly decreased, by as much as 18% compared to just a few weeks previously. Large commercial premises, such as office blocks will not be heating/cooling and major industry such as automotive plants, have paused production lines to protect their workforce. 

  • Total power demand is down: early estimates suggest about an 11% decrease in demand so far in this crisis. 

These temporary changes in demand allowed wind and solar to fleetingly take centre stage in our energy mix. 

In addition to the stricter government measures to address COVID-19, the weather was characterised by sunny and sometimes blustery conditions. The favourable weather, coupled with lower demand during the day, has meant solar and wind have provided over 50% of our power needs during several afternoons in recent weeks.

As we progress towards net zero, the contribution of intermittent renewable energy to our overall power supply will increase. The corollary of this growth will be the need for increased grid resilience. Two weeks ago, the electricity system operator (ESO) – National Grid - responded to the increased proportion of uncertain and intermittent supply with all the tools at its disposal. This meant sourcing power from traditional thermal plants (CCGT) to protect system stability, relying on fast response units (batteries and small generators), as well as sourcing power imports (due to lower demand in a locked down continent).

COVID-19 protective measures have provided a real world ‘lab’ for the ESO to learn how the system reacts to operating with high renewable load, albeit in the less pressured environment of a lower overall demand. The response so far has been successful. All the mechanisms designed over the years to cope with a sustainable energy future have worked as they should. The power sector is currently rightly focused on its role of keeping the lights on and protecting vulnerable customers. However, as this crisis unfolds and the industry learns from the pandemic response, what the energy industry takes away could be invaluable on the longer journey to net zero.

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Drew Stevenson

Drew Stevenson

Leader of Industry for Energy, Utilities and Resources, PwC United Kingdom

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