Pandemic Electric Bills Are Searing Hot, As Families Stay Home With lights out in many offices and millions of people plugging in at home, residential power bills are soaring, even as overall electricity consumption slumps during the recession.
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Pandemic Electric Bills Are Searing Hot, As Families Stay Home

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Pandemic Electric Bills Are Searing Hot, As Families Stay Home

Pandemic Electric Bills Are Searing Hot, As Families Stay Home

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/902649824/903433857" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So more than 3 million homes here in California could lose power during rolling blackouts. The power outages were ordered to ease pressure on the state's electric grid during a heatwave. It also comes as tens of millions of people are working from home nationwide, which means residential demand for power has soared. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Leandra Ramirez lives in Glendale, Ariz., where the high temperature in August can easily climb to 110 degrees.

LEANDRA RAMIREZ: I can go outside and scramble eggs on the sidewalk. Like, that's crazy.

HORSLEY: Air conditioning is essential. Ordinarily, the AC at Ramirez's house would get a break during the middle of the day when she goes off to work at a trucking company and her kids go to school, but not this summer.

RAMIREZ: Now it's running a constant 75 degrees every day because everybody is home, you know, and sitting in front of my laptop all day and the kids with their laptops, it just starts to get progressively warmer in that room every hour.

HORSLEY: Ramirez says her electric bill in July was $385. Her four teenagers just started back to online school from home, so she worries this month's bill will be even higher.

RAMIREZ: We have a very full house (laughter). There's always a computer on, and there's always an Xbox playing, and there's always a TV left on.

HORSLEY: Economist Steve Cicala of Tufts University has been studying electric consumption as a window on how families and businesses are weathering the pandemic. In ordinary times, home electricity use perks up in the morning as people wake up and start the coffee, then drops during the workday. Cicala says the coronavirus has upended that predictable pattern.

STEVE CICALA: People are sleeping in later into the day, and it's like a smooth increase over the course of the day because they're at home. And I think people are staying up a little bit later, too.

HORSLEY: So far, the spike in home electric use has not made up for the drop in commercial and industrial demand. But the gap is narrowing as home air conditioners are working overtime.

Lisa Vrooman shares a tiny apartment in Philadelphia with her boyfriend, a dog and a cat. It seemed like plenty of space until they were all staying there virtually around the clock. Suddenly, those vaulted ceilings were not so attractive.

LISA VROOMAN: The ceilings make it feel like you're in a big space, but that's expensive to keep cool.

HORSLEY: Vrooman, who's a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, says her electric bill in June was more than double last year's. She feels fortunate she can afford the increase, but she knows it's a real hardship for many people, especially those who've lost their jobs.

VROOMAN: If you have no income and you now need to have your family there all the time, like, it's got to be expensive.

HORSLEY: Vrooman noticed her water bill has gone up, too, perhaps from all the extra handwashing. Sean Chambers, who runs the water department in Greeley, Colo., says residential customers there are using 30% more water this year than last. He blames much of the increase on this year's hot, dry weather, but suspects the pandemic is also playing a part.

SEAN CHAMBERS: People were certainly at home using water in ways they had not previously.

HORSLEY: One other residential bill that's gone sky-high - Wi-Fi. Leandra Ramirez says since the pandemic began, her family keeps going over its data limit, and she's had to pay their Internet service provider for extra gigabytes.

RAMIREZ: For the first couple months, they weren't charging people for overages. But apparently, in their world (laughter), the pandemic ended in June. So that's something I reached out to them about and said, hey, we're all still stuck at home. Did you miss the memo?

HORSLEY: Ramirez expects to remain stuck at home for the foreseeable future. There are tradeoffs for all those extra expenses, she says. She likes being able to spend more time with her kids. And with no work clothes to wash, she is saving a bundle on laundry. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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