Weekend Long Reads: What is COVID-19 Doing to Energy Demand?

by Kevin Schofield 

This weekend’s “long read” recommendations include a look at the effect of face masks and other COVID-relate restrictions, who is using telehealth services, and what’s going on with global energy demand as we sit this year out.

Do masks and other COVID restrictions work, and what effect do they have on the economy?

Earlier this week, the Vanderbilt School of Medicine released a study of the effect of government-mandated mask wearing requirements. First, they charted out the growth of patient hospitalizations for COVID-19, categorized by the percentage of patients that hospitals treat who come from counties with mask requirements. And they found exactly what one would expect: the patients are mostly coming from counties without mask requirements. Hospitals whose patients mostly come from counties without mask requirements saw a dramatic increase in cases over the past six weeks, while the hospitals that serve counties that mandate mask-wearing saw much smaller increases.

Second, they used cell phone mobility data (as a proxy for the level of participation in economic activity) to quantify the effect of COVID-related restrictions on business capacity and operations. What it found was that while COVID-related business restrictions slightly depressed participation in economic activity, community infection rates had a substantially larger effect. In other words: people stop going out to stores and restaurants when COVID infections surge in their community. That suggests that restrictions that keep infection rates low do more to sustain the economy than lifting restrictions and allowing the virus to spread.

The paper provides a tidy summary of what this all means:

Throughout the pandemic we have seen a consistent pattern of economic participation mirroring community infection: as cases and hospitalizations rise, consumers’ mobility and spending patterns either decline or shift to “safer” activities. It is very clear that the best way to manage the economic fallout is to definitively manage the virus using proven strategies that can break chains of transmission. This requires engagement and collective responsibility among individuals and their elected officials. Only when transmission is reduced will individuals feel comfortable participating in activities that support the local economy as they did before the pandemic.

COVID-19 Trends in Tennessee: Summer turns to Fall

Who uses telehealth services?

Prior to COVID-19, telehealth services were already starting to become more available, particularly in rural areas with limited “bricks and mortar” health facilities and medical personnel. But the pandemic has led to many more health providers choosing to offer the services, if for no other reason than to reduce the number of unnecessary visits to their facilities to keep community spread of the virus low. A new research paper came out this week looking at who is actually using telehealth services.

Of course, “telehealth” is a broad term, and could incorporate many different types of interactions. The researchers found that just over 50% of people have used some form of telehealth, but email and messaging within a provider’s web site were much more popular; more advanced forms such as videoconferencing not so much.

What is particularly concerning is that the willingness to use video conferencing is lower among some at-risk and traditional underserved groups, including persons over age 65, low-income individuals, and the Black community.

From the report:

Compared with participants belonging to other races, Black respondents were significantly less likely to endorse that they did not have the need… and more likely to report that they did not know how to use videoconferencing visits… There were no differences by race in identification of physicians offering videoconferencing visits as a barrier.

While telehealth services are not a total replacement for in-person healthcare, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic they can be a valuable additional way to connect up people to health professionals.  It looks like training patients to use telehealth services is a key barrier; perhaps that’s an opportunity for health organizations and governments, in partnership with senior centers, community centers, and community-based organizations to fill an important gap.

Prevalence and Characteristics of Telehealth Utilization in the U.S.

What is COVID-19 doing to energy demand?

The International Energy Agency, a multi-nation coalition “committed to shaping a secure and sustainable energy future for all,” has released its annual World Energy Outlook.

It predicts a 5% drop in energy demand this year, along with a 7% drop in energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions and an 18% drop in energy investments, all due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decline in CO2 emissions rolls them back to their 2010 level.

The report has some interesting forecasts for electricity generation: it says that coal-based generation will never recover to its 2019 levels, and by 2040 it will be under 20% of the total power generation mix even under the most pessimistic scenario. On the other hand, solar power generation is now “king,” having recently become the lowest-cost option, and is poised to take off in the years to come.

The bad news: global oil demand is likely to continue to rise through this decade and then finally flatten out in the 2030’s, unless there are dramatic interventions. That will make it impossible for the world to reach the necessary greenhouse gas emissions reductions to stop the increasing impacts of climate change.

The report lays out four different scenarios going forward: what happens if countries follow their stated energy policies (the worst case); the “delayed recovery” scenario in which the economic recovery from COVID-19 stretches out and energy demand remains depressed for longer; the “sustainable development” scenario where new clean energy policies and investment coming out of the pandemic allow the world to meet sustainable energy objectives, the Paris Agreement goals, and energy access and air quality goals; and a “net zero emissions by 2050” scenario.

The executive summary of the World Energy Outlook report is a breezy twelve-page read, accompanied by a slide-show presentation of charts and graphs highlighting the trends for the next two decades.

World Energy Outlook 2020

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Insight, a web site providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears from time to time on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.

Before getting into journalism Kevin worked at Microsoft for twenty six years, including seventeen in the company’s research division. He has twin daughters, loves to cook, and is trying hard to learn Spanish and the guitar.

Featured image is attributed to dmbosstone under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.