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U.S. Grid Operators Have Seen Little Load Change From Coronavirus Restrictions

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Peter Key's picture
Freelance Writer, Editor, Consultant Self-employed

I've been a business journalist since 1985 when I received an MBA from Penn State. I covered energy, technology, and venture capital for The Philadelphia Business Journal from 1998 through 2013....

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  • Mar 20, 2020

U.S. transmission grid operators have yet to seen a major change in power demand from the actions being taken to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, but a few are spotting small differences.

“Regarding load, we don’t have a complete picture yet of what the impacts are, but we can tell you that the shift in work patterns and business closures is likely behind subtle shifts in electricity use,” Jeff Shields, PJM’s media relations manager, said in an email.

In countries that have severely clamped down on everyday life to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the shifts in power demand haven’t been subtle.

French grid operator RTE said March 19 that the demand for electricity was down by 15 percent from normal for this time of year, according to a Reuters report. The French government put the country on lockdown on March 17 in response to the coronavirus.

Italian grid operator Ferna saw an 11 percent drop in power on its network in the week through March 18, according to a Bloomberg report. Italy has been under a total lockdown since March 9.

In Japan, the slowdown in industrial activity as a result of measures taken to contain the coronavirus has reduced demand for power in the country, the chairman of Japan’s federation of electric utilities said on March 13.

“We are closely watching development of the pandemic as further reduction in corporate and economic activities would lead to serious impacts,” Reuters quoted Satoru Katsuno as saying.

Responses across the U.S. have varied, although they’re getting more uniform as more people are diagnosed with COVID-19. Generally, they’ve been strongest in the areas within the footprints of New York Independent System Operator; PJM, whose territory includes all or part of 13 Mid-Atlantic and Midwest states and Washington, D.C.; and California Independent System Operator. Texas and the plains states, which fall in the footprints of Electric Reliability Council of Texas and Southwest Power Pool, respectively, haven’t put in place as many restrictions, although they’re catching up.

Those variations have yet to show up in major differences for power demand on the grids of the regional transmission organizations and independent system operators, although some have seen small drops in power demand as well as shifts in the timing of their peaks.

For example, Shields said PJM’s daily peak is now occurring a little later in the morning than it normally does this time of year and power demand across its footprint is down. On March 16, Shields said, PJM normally would have expected about 100,000 megawatts of load, based on the day of the week, the time of year and the weather. Due to the restrictions put in place in by some PJM states, all of which have shuttered their schools, the grid operator reduced its forecast to about 94,500 MW, which turned out to be slightly below the actual load of roughly 95,500 MW.

“So we saw some reduction that day and will continue to consider coronavirus-inspired changes in the load forecast,” Shields said.

A spokesman for Peco, which is in the heart of PJM’s Mid-Atlantic territory, said via email that the Philadelphia-based utility has seen more of a shift rather than a major change in power usage by its customers. Demand now “is similar to what you would see over a weekend, when most people are out of offices,” he said.

Similarly, New York Independent System Operator, whose territory has passed Washington as the state with the most COVID-19 cases, said in a statement that it isn’t seeing a significant decrease in daily peak demand, but is “observing shifts in energy usage patterns throughout the state compared to prior weeks.”

NYISO said it “will continue to monitor for trends as new data becomes available.”

A spokeswoman for Consolidated Edison, which supplies power to New York City and Westchester County, said the company hasn’t seen measurable impacts from the restrictions there, but “is working through potential future demand scenarios to identify what other plans are needed.”  

In an article posted to its website on March 19, ISO New England said it “anticipates the pandemic will affect the amount of electricity typically drawn from the bulk power system.”

The grid operator said it is monitoring the actions being taken in response to the coronavirus, evaluating the effects those actions are having on power demand and refining its load forecasts accordingly.

Spokespeople at both Electric Reliability Council of Texas and California Independent System Operator said it was too early to tell how coronavirus-related policies were affecting power use in the states they serve, which have taken very different steps in dealing with the coronavirus. Texas didn’t close its restaurants and schools until March 19, by which time California’s governor had ordered all Californians to stay at home.

“We are aware that consumer behavior may have an effect on load characteristics and have been monitoring,” a CAISO spokeswoman said in an email. “For now, we are enjoying light loads because of the cool weather, so there's been no impact to the grid operations.”

Southwest Power Pool, whose territory is mainly the plains states, “has not seen a discernible difference in load,” a spokeswoman said in an email. SPP is ready to adapt to any changes it sees and is continuing to closely monitor the situation as it develops, she added.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 20, 2020

Thanks for sharing Peter-- some really useful information here.

Also, reminder for anyone who has questions/thoughts on how COVID-19 is impacting the energy industry-- please check out and participate in our active Community Q&A on the topic!

Peter Key's picture
Peter Key on Mar 23, 2020

I wasn't able to get information from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator in time to include it in the post above, but a MISO spokeswoman reached out to me Monday (March 23) morning. She said MISO's load for March to date is down 18 percent from a year ago and 13 percent from the average for the period since 2014. MISO thinks the decrease is due to a combination of mild weather and pandemic-related adjustments and closures.

Additionally, MISO operators are seeing a smoother morning ramp due to people staying, and in many cases working, from home, and MISO thinks its peak is likely to shift forward an hour to between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.

MISO generates its load forecast from historical data and weather forecasts. None of the historical data comes from a period like the one the country is experiencing now, but that will change as the pandemic continues and MISO learns how electrical usage changes in response to it.

I usually don't try to read my sources' minds, but in this case I think it's safe to say that MISO hopes its data set on power users' responses to pandemics remains as small as possible.  

Patrick McGarry's picture
Patrick McGarry on Mar 30, 2020

Peter- RTO Insider ran a story today detailing how PJM is trying to make the load forecasting algorithm "not as smart" due to the sudden change in load profile...increased residential load ad declined industrial load.

Do you think this is a good idea? I mean, things will get back to a "new normal", but probably not like an "old normal". 

Do you think AI should be tweaked or changed to doscount the virus impacy in deterning load forecast projections?

I know the final outcome wont be fully known for awhile, but I find it interesting how we want to always throw out pattern recognition techniques when it doesnt produce what we expected.


Peter Key's picture
Peter Key on Mar 31, 2020


I know I'm becoming not as smart from sitting around my house watching Netflix, but I didn't realize load forecasting algorithms were following my example.

I don't know enough about what PJM did or why it did it to answer your question, but I'll take a look at the RTO Insider article and possibly follow up with an article of my own.

When I did the article you commented on, I was actually hoping to get more examples of RTOs or utllities doing or considering something like this, rather than the immediate reactions that I got, but the stay-at-home mandates hadn't been in effect long enough for a wide-enough swath of the country. Now, they've been in place long enough for people to begin to accurately assess their effect and how to respond to them if they're around for a while.

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