What Do Empty Offices and Hotels Mean for Carbon Emissions?

A silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic is reduced energy use and carbon emissions from buildings due to shifts in operations.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses massive public health and economic challenges as the public and private sectors scramble to limit the damage of the virus. To slow the spread of the disease, over 297 million people in 38 states have been ordered to stay home and avoid going into work, socializing in public, and traveling. These restrictions have resulted in drastic reductions in occupancy for buildings across virtually every industry; and it got us wondering, what effect has this had across utility consumption and energy use across the built environment? What’s happening in the buildings we’re leaving behind?

To find out, we dove into the operations data from the hundreds of buildings across the U.S. that use our platform in order to visualize how building operators are responding to this unprecedented shift in normal life and quantify the impact. Here’s what we found: 

Overall Reductions in Energy Use

With a wave of tenants instructing their employees to work from home, property teams have had the opportunity to save energy by operating floors or potentially entire buildings as if they were vacant. It was no surprise that the most visible change we saw was a substantial decrease in energy use in commercial buildings across the country, the vast majority of which are located in cities. We visualized total megaWatt hours for each hour of the week, starting from Monday March 2 and ending Sunday March 29, and mapped it against major events that unfolded as part of the pandemic response.

The most pronounced reductions in energy consumption appear in the week following the CDC announcement, which also coincides with California announcing mandatory stay-at-home on March 19. Relative to the week of March 2, over the next three weeks buildings for which we have data saw a total reduction of 14.48 million kWh. This corresponds to approximately 10,238 metric tons of CO2 emissions avoided, or the equivalent of 2,212 passenger cars driven for an entire year.

The reductions in energy consumption are even more visible when plotted on top of each other (below). Here, we’ve standardized the x-axis to be one calendar week.

State by State Reductions in Energy Use

With no national mandate in place, it’s been left up to individual states to develop response plans and policies. We examined commercial real estate sectors in California, New York, and Virginia to see the impact of differing pandemic responses on the buildings we have data for. 

In California and New York, you can see sharp declines in commercial building energy consumption as social distancing recommendations begin to unfold, followed by a sharp drop when social distancing becomes formally enforced with policies that require residents to work from home and non-essential businesses to close. In Virginia, where bars, restaurants, and gyms remained open in a limited capacity for longer, you can see a slow and steady decline as businesses voluntarily close and ask employees to work home in the absence of state-dictated closures.

How Individual Property Teams are Responding

We have seen a range of responses to the pandemic, from buildings that continue to have normal consumption patterns in spite of everything, all the way to buildings that have completely shut down. To take a closer look at how individual buildings are operating, we compared each building’s consumption to a baseline version of itself. Here, we set the baseline as the week of March 2, prior to any major shelter-in-place restrictions in the U.S. We see that on average, buildings this week consumed only 83% of their baseline usage, or a median reduction of 7,198 kWh. This translates to a  CO2 reduction of 6.6 metric tons and weekly savings of $1,126 per-building (assuming a blended rate of $0.12/kWh). For the buildings operating at less than 75% (36.3% of buildings) or 50% (2.4% of buildings) of their pre-coronavirus precautions levels, these reductions are potentially much larger.

One striking example is an office building in Detroit, Michigan. By communicating with their tenants about who would be issuing work-from-home policies and when, the property team was able to lower the building’s baseload by about 30% a full week before Michigan officially mandated residents to stay at home. You can see this in the chart showing the building’s energy curve week over week. Compared to the week of March 2, this building used 43,350 kWh less energy over the weeks of March 16 and 23, saving $4,681 and 30.7 tons of CO2.

Takeaways

These uncertain times have forced all industries to get creative in order to keep people safe without throttling business. For commercial real estate owners and operators, it has presented a unique opportunity to focus on improvement projects and reap savings from energy reduction measures. Operating during a global pandemic has reinforced the importance of communicating regularly with tenants, investing in technology that allows property teams to closely monitor their buildings remotely, and staying vigilant in the search for opportunities to reduce consumption and cut costs wherever possible. 

This post was written by Aquicore’s Data Science Team.