Is Nature Healing? COVID-19’s Impact on The Environment

June 25, 2020

By: Esther Heymans

During the first throes of the pandemic, media outlets searched for silver linings. One of the first ones they grasped onto was environmental changes. Blue skies, families of animals roving the streets, and manatees enjoying the waterways were all reported a few weeks after the first COVID-19 shutdowns. At least, despite all the bad news, nature was seemingly healing. However, as we have progressed away from initial stay at home orders and quarantines, questions have arisen. Are the lessened emissions a sign of success in terms of energy conservation? Or will emissions and energy usage go back to normal as soon as people do?

Evidence of positive environmental impacts go beyond anecdotal social media posts. Due to the amount of people staying at home, transportation emissions have gone down significantly. Lower emissions are a boon to local air quality. Residential energy demand did rise during the shutdown, but that was mitigated by a significant reduction in business and industrial demand for energy. As more and more workers were sent to work from home, large corporations’ energy demands shrunk. According to Edison Electric Institute’s General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, Emily Fisher, “with a lot of businesses being shuttered, the demand for electricity to power businesses and manufacturing just wasn’t there.” Both factors mean that the environment was benefited by societies’ changes in behavior during the pandemic. However, were those behavioral changes enough to help the environment move forward?

Some behaviors are bound to stick. Working from home has become common, easy, and accessible. Many people don’t ever want to go back into an office and most businesses are increasing the flexibility for employees to work from home. The increase in remote work helps keep industrial energy demands low. Transportation emissions are more of a wildcard, however. While options for remote work may cut down on commutes that leave behind lots of emissions, many people are making use of the open roads for the first time since the pandemic. These behavioral changes alone, while beneficial to the environment, are not enough in and of themselves.

Fortunately, the clean energy movement has existed long before the pandemic. Many energy companies are taking it upon themselves to make large reductions in their emissions. Companies are looking towards cleaner, renewable technologies to take them closer to net zero emissions. These independent actions from energy companies started before the pandemic. During the pandemic, it became apparent that investment in clean, renewable energy was integral to supporting customers through the tough times that faced them. Innovation in terms of energy technologies helps customers by keeping their local carbon emissions low and by giving them more cost-effective technologies to use. Renewable energy also helps electric companies stay competitive on the market. Fisher explains that “renewable energy in a lot of parts of the country is really competitive or cheaper than other sources, those resources can really help keep the costs to customers low long term.” These internal incentives have mobilized energy companies to invest in the clean energy industry.

Things will eventually get back to normal. That doesn’t mean we have to disregard the lessons we have learned. One of the biggest lessons learned for the energy sector is that behavioral changes really do work. Staying at home more had a positive effect on the environment. Fisher is confident that progress can be made from this point forward “we have the opportunity to take technology that has become affordable and deploy them in service of not only better customer relationships but also reducing emissions.” With the knowledge of the past year, energy companies can pursue personal commitments to cleaner energy while encouraging behavioral changes from consumers to lessen the environmental impact of their energy usage.

Listen to episode 9 of “The Current” to find out more!

Episode 9: Brad speaks with Emily Sanford Fisher, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary for EEI, about trends in emissions related to COVID-19 and efforts throughout the electric utility industry to reduce carbon emissions while keeping rates affordable for customers.