The effect of the COVID-19 on electricity demand is not the most dramatic or newsworthy of the pandemic’s consequence, but electricity demand patterns have a lot to say about a country’s activity. France’s President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to curtail non-essential movements in the country as of Monday March 16th 2020 at 12:00 was a unique opportunity to compare the week before and after the order. Unsurprisingly, the lockdown had a serious dampening effect on electricity demand: total electricity consumption, as seen from the perspective of RTE, the national transmission system operator (TSO), fell by 16% to 5.3 TWh during the week ended March 22nd (these statistics do not account for auto-consumption).
Comparing the seven days before and after the confinement order, and separating weekdays and week-ends, we note differences in the amplitude and shape of consumption, and in forecasting errors.
The confinement lopped off an average of 9.3 MW (16%) during weekdays. Even in the trough hour of 04:00 when consumption is at its lowest, consumption was down by 12% week-on-week. This shows that the confinement is not just about lifestyle, it dents the real economy as well. Confinement also had a flattening effect on the curve. While normal weekdays typically have a local morning peak at about 09:00, confinement weekdays had a first local peak at about 12:00, a shape that is characteristic of regular week-ends.
Comparing quarter-hourly day-ahead forecasts by the TSO on the week preceding and following the confinement order, the distribution of errors was wider during the confinement week and forecasts tended to overestimate demand. This is unsurprising, considering the unprecedented situation. Where confinement days could not be classified as workdays, vacation days, or holidays. If episodes of confinement days are to become part of a new normal, TSOs and Balance Responsible Parties worldwide will need to incorporate confinement days in their forecasting models.
The drop in demand in France and interconnected countries had the expected effect of reducing the amount of thermal generation in the merit order. Natural gas, the only fossil fuel generating power in the week before confinement, dropped from 12% of overall generation to 4%. The rest was generated by nuclear power (64% and 65% of the total), hydro, and intermittent renewables. Adding to the woes of merchant power generators, strong winds and good nuclear availability pushed wholesale power prices (EPEX Spot continuous 30’ trading products) into negative territory on Sunday March 22nd, quite an exceptional situation for France. Wholesale prices in Germany were even more negative that day.By the time Europe emerges from the pandemic, yet more of the industrial and commercial demand for electricity will be curtailed. This will be the result of a sharp fall in demand, in investments, and the disruptions to global trade. Some of the energy demand will recover as the economy emerges from the pandemic, but some of the changes will be permanent: the need and obligation to stay away from crowds will serve as a proof of concept for the efficiency of remote work from home and Skype meetings as workable alternatives to daily trips to the office. The search for the French word for remote work also saw a ten-fold increase week-on-week.