Jul 22, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The shift to remote work puts a new focus on home energy use

An illustration of a house being measured
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic and the presidential election are together putting a fresh spotlight onto the scope of residential energy demand and how to cut emissions from homes and buildings.

The big picture: Lockdowns and remote work are moving energy demand from offices and business to residences — and projections of working from home outlasting the pandemic suggest that some of that shift will persist.

Driving the news: A big peer-reviewed study of U.S. residential emissions, written pre-pandemic but even more relevant now, quantifies immense income-based differences in CO2.

  • "Wealthier Americans have per capita footprints ∼25% higher than those of lower-income residents, primarily due to larger homes," finds the study in the journal PNAS.
  • "In especially affluent suburbs, these emissions can be 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods," University of Michigan researchers found in the analysis based on data from 93 million households.

Why it matters: Residential energy use accounts for roughly 20% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and deeply cutting those emissions in line with the Paris Agreement will require a multipronged approach, they conclude.

  • An 80% emissions cut from the residential sector by 2050 could not be done by decarbonizing power generation alone "due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes."
  • "Meeting this target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns," the study finds.

What to watch: The 2020 elections could usher in new residential energy policies.

  • Joe Biden's energy plan calls for weatherizing 2 million homes over four years, as well as "direct cash rebates and low-cost financing to upgrade and electrify home appliances and install more efficient windows."
  • In addition, some of Biden's proposed infrastructure spending is aimed at spurring construction of 1.5 million "sustainable homes and housing units."

Quick take: The pandemic has driven down overall CO2 emissions this year, largely because of declines in oil-fueled travel (now bouncing back).

  • If remote work persists, stronger efforts to address residential emissions will be a way to lock in and complement some of those CO2 reductions.
A graph
Data: IEA; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

What's next: The pandemic is driving a surge of interest in new appliances and electronics as more people work from home and and schools operate remotely, the International Energy Agency points out in a new commentary.

  • "It is vital that new appliances bought during and after the pandemic are as efficient as possible to outpace higher ownership patterns and avoid increased energy consumption levels after the crisis."
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