Carnegie Mellon University
June 19, 2020

Recovering from COVID-19

Energy systems experts offer insights on infrastructure planning

By Amanda King

Amanda King

Carnegie Mellon University's Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation hosted three energy experts for a webinar on how social, environmental and technical resiliency frameworks can better prepare our energy systems as states and individuals begin to plan for the recovery phases of COVID-19.

The panel, part of the Institute's Energy, Resilience and COVID-19 webinar series, featured: Nicholas Muller, associate professor of Economics, Engineering, and Public Policy; Energy Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University; Katrina Kelly-Pitou, Economics & Energy Systems strategist at SmithGroup; and Karina Ricks, director of the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.

Anna. J. Siefken, executive director of the Scott Institute, moderated the event.

Key takeaways from the webinar:

COVID-19 has impacted infrastructure planning

Kelly-Pitou said COVID-19 brought attention to the importance of connecting energy systems to the social and environmental impacts that built designs have on the communities that companies construct them in.

"It's important to make sure resilience planning is business as normal, and to internalize externalities that aren't included in this," Kelly-Pitou said.

Muller noted how the crisis revealed the nation's economic fragility, specifically in energy systems. With a decrease in travel, "For the first time in history, we saw oil futures close in the U.S. in negative territory in April," he said.

The repercussions: Companies ceased new drilling rigs and workers were laid off.

Short-term effects on energy use, mobility and air quality are evident

Speaking to his latest working paper with the National Bureau of Economic Research, Muller and collaborators investigated the national effects on air quality given the large and significant changes in mobility primarily through personal vehicle use and reductions in power generation — stemming from stay-at-home policies.

"We found that in large U.S. cities, the reductions in fine particulate matter concentrations have been considerable," said Muller. "We know from cell phone data that personal mobility was down on the order of 40-50 percent from the beginning of March to the end of April. Power generation on net was down 5-15 percent."

The researchers learned that this likely reduced nationwide expected premature deaths from air pollution emissions by 350 per month among disadvantaged communities. 

There will be lasting effects on digital infrastructure.

Providing digital infrastructure and fiber communications to every corner of the city and making sure residents have the devices they need to use that connectivity is imperative, explained Ricks.

"From a sustainability standpoint, I think we will see much more 'podding' of communities within a smaller geographic area of each other where our neighborhoods start to become complete communities again," Ricks said.

"Energy, Resilience, and COVID-19 – Pivoting in 2020"

The webinar series highlights insights from research, industry and innovation related to how COVID-19 is impacting the way business is conducted, and what it means to the energy systems. The series continues on Thursday, July 9 and will focus on "Energy Poverty: Domestic and International Challenges and Insights." The event will feature CMU Professors Paulina Jaramillo and Destenie Nock. Visit the Scott Institute website to register and for more information.

Utility Planning: With leadership from the region's top utilities, the Scott Institute delved into how each of their relief strategies are aiding Pittsburgh consumers and discuss operational readjustment plans for 2020.

Technologies that Enable Resilient Electrical Infrastructure: The residual impacts of COVID-19 will affect everyday life in unimaginable ways. The webinar explores what COVID-19 has exposed about the national electrical infrastructure, and experts share predictions for future maintenance and alternate sources for reliance.

Pittsburgh's Energy Resilience in Times of Crisis: Before COVID-19, the City of Pittsburgh began developing solutions to combat resiliency challenges plaguing Pittsburgh communities. In 2014, the city joined the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities Network. Since then, Pittsburgh has proven to be a trailblazer in innovation, technology and energy in times of crisis.

Robotics and Energy: COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of safe and reliable energy systems to keep essential businesses and hospitals operational in times of need. Robotic technology may be key to improving energy resilience in the face of crisis.