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Lockdowns are pushing up home electric bills, and air conditioning season is hardly here yet

Many people are saving money on things like transportation but spending more on electricity.
Many people are saving money on things like transportation but spending more on electricity.Tamir Kalifa for The Boston Globe

The COVID-19 lockdown may have saved you a bundle on gasoline and bus fare, but you’re probably spending that cash on other things — such as utility bills for your home. And with air-conditioning season rolling in, you’ll soon be paying even more.

Millions of people rely on electronic devices that let them work from home. And millions of the unemployed are watching more television and playing more video games. The same goes for children who’d normally be in school. It all adds up to a sizable increase in the residential consumption of electricity.

How sizable? That depends on who you are — and whom you ask.

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Itron, a Washington state company that makes smart electric meters, estimates that US and Canadian households are consuming 5 to 10 percent more electricity each month since the lockdown began. Frank A. Monforte, Itron’s director of forecasting solutions, said he based his estimate on interviews with the operators of the major North American electrical grid systems.

A survey from another smart meter company, Cambridge-based Sense, suggests a much larger surge. Sense measured data directly from 5,000 of its meters installed in homes in 30 US states, and found that average electricity usage increased 22 percent during the COVID-19 lockdown. For Massachusetts residents, usage increased by nearly 27 percent.

But Sense’s vice president of technology, George Zavaliagkos, said that Sense users tend to be affluent people with larger homes and lots of gadgets, so it’s possible their power consumption surge is unusually large.

In addition, Zavaliagkos said, the Sense survey found that “people started living and working from home before the states started issuing the lockdowns." The company found the spike in home electricity use began in early March. At that time, states were starting to declare emergencies but had not begun issuing official stay-at-home orders.

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And residential power consumption has since begun to decline. Zavaliagkos believes this is an indication that even before the lifting of stay-at-home orders, a sizable number of people began spending less time at home.

But the next big spike in demand for power is on the way, as consumers crank up their air conditioners. It’s already happening in California and Texas, and Itron’s Monforte said the data suggest that electrical utilities should prepare for a very busy summer. Already, those states are seeing hot weather, along with the kind of electricity demand that normally doesn’t occur until June.

And as the economy revives, electricity demand will only grow. Businesses will switch on their lights and crank up their air conditioners, even if only 25 percent of their workers are on hand.

Meanwhile, millions remain unemployed, and millions more will keep working from home right through the summer. If they’re running their air conditioners, they may be sweating even more when the bill arrives.






Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.