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How The Pandemic Has Affected Power, Water And Internet Use

Flickr user E Photos / "IMG_1927 - Power Lines" (CC v 2.0)

The pandemic and accompanying stay-at-home orders have greatly affected many regional services, including utilities.

Governor J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order and the accompanying months of social distancing have greatly affected what buildings remain open, and where people spend their time. 

Modern life requires electricity, and more people at home has changed how it’s consumed.  Aleksi Paaso is the Director of Distribution Planning at ComEd.  He said the times of day in which people use the most electricity haven’t shifted, but the system’s still been affected.

“There hasn’t been a significant change in the peaks that we have seen," he said. "But the shapes of the load curves have become more smooth.” 

This means there is a more steady usage of electricity overall. Paaso said a benchmarking of the grid in early May helped ComEd make adjustments to these new, more consistent usage patterns.

“The weekdays look a lot like the weekend days, what used to be the weekends," said Passo. "So we’re now operating the system more so what it would typically look like on a weekend if we weren’t in that pre-pandemic situation.” 

Also consistent with the stay-at-home order, Paaso said, businesses and other commercial properties are using less electricity, while residential areas are increasing.

Credit ci.rockford.il.us

A similar trend has played out at local levels with water usage. Bryan Faivre is the utilities and transportation director for the City of DeKalb. He said commercial water use has dropped in the area. But he said the greatest impact on overall usage comes from the partial closing of Northern Illinois University, the city’s largest employer.

“We’re down about 6% or so for the year, but I would say over the past couple months, essentially I’m talking since the COVID, we’re probably down about 15% or so.”

As with electricity, Faivre said the times people use water has been more spread out. This, along with lower total usage, means the City has had to tweak which of its wells pump water, and how it’s stored.

“Over time, that water will sort of get old or stale, lose its chlorine residual. So it will degrade the water quality if we’re not fluctuating those water towers," said Faivre. 

But less water usage has had a direct impact on revenue.

“On a budget that water sales produce about $5 million a year. So you take 10% off of that, it’s a loss of about $500,000 or so," he said. 

Faivre said the effect of that loss on the city is even greater than it looks. Fact is, pumping less water doesn’t yield significant cost savings. That’s because much of the money in the budget goes for fixed costs such as pipes, pumps, treatment plants, and employees. As businesses open up again, Faivre anticipates water usage will increase. But he recommends owners of those buildings first flush their pipes to get rid the old water that may be lacking its original chlorine.

“That would dissipate, and you could have metals leech into the water as water sits in pipes.” 

Credit Pixabay

And then there’s the internet. Though not strictly a utility, it’s become increasingly important for communication, work, and entertainment to those in seclusion. Jack Segal is a regional vice president of communications for Comcast. He said greater internet usage coincided with social distancing, which began in areas such as Seattle and San Francisco.

“And initially as Chicago started social distancing, we saw a huge uptick here. That was larger than other communities that we serve. But as time has gone on, we’ve seen it all even out," he said. 

Segal said the company has regularly increased its capacity because internet traffic has historically doubled every 12 to 18 months. But he noted Comcast had to accelerate some of those plans to account for coronavirus.

“You can add lanes to a highway to handle more traffic, but sometimes how you engineer those lanes really makes the difference between how you can increase the capacity, really manages the traffic that you have.” 

There’s also been a particular increase in certain types of internet traffic, such as videoconferencing, streaming, and game downloads.

“We’re seeing a lot more TV watching," Segal said. "In fact, it’s about eight viewing hours per week per household on average. And a lot of that is video on demand.”

Finally, he said, the times people are using the internet differ from before.

“We used to see peak traffic before March 1st around 9:00 p.m. That’s when everybody gets home," he said. "You’re finished with dinner. You start to watch TV and maybe stream content. Now you’re seeing it earlier in the day.” 

So, consumers of electricity, water, and the internet -- and the those who supply them -- have adapted to a climate of social distancing. That will change as Illinois transitions to Phase 4, but exactly what that will look like remains to be seen.