New Delhi: Those buying air conditioners (ACs) in Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) made their choice on the basis of the brand, features and price points, and energy efficiency considerations weighed less on their choices, a study that mapped patterns and preferences of more than 2,000 households between July and September 2019 has found.

Emphasising that factors like higher price and low availability of energy-efficient ACs prevented people from buying them, the study highlights the opportunity for decision-makers and businesses to incentivise purchase of more energy-efficient appliances.

In the next 20 years, the government expects that 300 million room ACs will be purchased in India. This has implications for India's greenhouse gas emissions and for its clean-energy plans.

"Awareness of energy-efficient schemes and intervention campaigns will be key to purchase decisions. Households that are better informed about available schemes, purchase more efficient technologies and also use them more efficiently," said Radhika Khosla, one of the authors of the study.

The study, entitled 'The what, why, and how of changing cooling energy consumption in India's urban households', published in Environmental Research Letters, sought to understand the changing dynamics in cooling consumption in Delhi-NCR and the choices people make around energy efficiency. Indian researchers from University of Oxford, Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and Ashoka University have authored the study.

Key findings

Of the 2,092 households surveyed across a cross-section of the city, only 43% owned an AC, while 18% of households in the same neighbourhoods owned only a fan. This indicated the still increasing uptake of cooling technologies, the study said. [The sample surveyed is representative of areas in Delhi with above-average AC penetration. The sample area also has greater penetration of white goods--such as washing machines and refrigerators--compared to Delhi as a whole, implying relatively wealthier neighbourhoods.]

Among the AC-owning households, 78% had at least one energy-efficient AC, and three-star ACs were the most popular choice. The average star rating of ACs in the households surveyed was 2.8, the study said.

The Union power ministry launched the Standards and Labeling programme in 2006 to make consumers aware of energy savings on electrical appliances, and on savings on energy bills as a result. This became popular among consumers as the 'star ratings' programme, whereby appliances were awarded star ratings (1 to 5 in ascending order of energy efficiency), as registered with the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) of the Ministry of Power.

The programme covers 26 appliances and equipment, including room air conditioners, refrigerators and television sets.

Growing cooling needs and the choices consumers make

The chief cause for people to purchase AC was the basic requirement of cooling or the ineffectiveness of an existing cooling appliance, which in most cases was a fan, followed by coolers. Fewer than 10% of the households reported that the AC purchase was due to improvement in their economic status, the study noted.

Given the available choices--from one- to five-star-labelled ACs--facing the buyers on display windows, do they make an informed decision?

"There is lack of evidence to pinpoint the reasons behind purchase of energy-efficient ACs or lack thereof," said Satish Kumar, an expert in the field of thermal cooling and president and executive director of the Alliance for an Energy Efficient Economy, a non-profit organisation that works on creating awareness about energy efficiency and related policies. However, he believed, there are some broad deductions that can be made as to why people may not prefer to buy energy-efficient ACs.

"In general, energy-efficient ACs are more expensive and [that] puts them out of reach for many first-time buyers. Second, some people are probably not convinced about the future savings on such ACs in spite of star-rating programme because of the multitude of parameters [such as the size of the space where ACs are used, how many hours, size of the household using the AC] affecting energy use in the real world; however, savings for a lower-star-rated and lower-priced AC is appealing, since that is immediate and visible. Last, there might be low conviction about [energy efficiency and monetary savings of] these products," Kumar said, adding that companies should be pushed by the government in public interest to introduce dynamic display of power consumption on ACs to give an unambiguous idea of their energy and monetary savings to consumers.

Cost is an important factor, Khosla, one of the study's authors, pointed out. "So innovative financing and replacement mechanisms are likely to succeed," she said. The UJALA (Unnat Jyoti by Affordable LEDs for All) scheme launched in January 2015 to promote energy efficiency is an example of innovative financing--it made energy efficient CFL lightbulbs available at the same price as energy-intensive incandescent bulbs.

Comfort or bills?

The usage of ACs--the duration as well as the time of the day when they are most used--threw up insights on the conservative use of AC compared to what has been estimated in the environment ministry's India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP). Nearly 60% of the households studied used AC for an average of three to six hours daily during the peak summer months and only about 15% of households used it for more than eight hours a day. The usage was high at night during the 10 p.m. to 1.00 a.m. period, the study showed.

The average AC usage in the sample surveyed was 5.4 hours, the study said. "By contrast, the national India Cooling Action Plan estimates cooling demand by considering that everyone who owns an AC runs it for over 8 hours a day for 6 months of the year," the study noted.

In half of the households, the preferred temperature range during AC usage was between 24 degrees Celsius and 26 degrees Celsius while 27% of households preferred to set the temperature between 21 and 23 degrees Celsius. This was a key insight as a central government notification issued last year mandated all room air-conditioners to have a default temperature setting of 24 degrees Celsius.

The central government has enforced energy efficiency measures to improve standards of energy efficiency and to reduce carbon emissions. The star labelling programme led to an estimated 4.6 billion units of energy savings in 2017-18 alone and a cumulative energy savings of 46 TWh, translating to 38 million tonnes of carbon emission reduction, the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) said in a statement when the new temperature norms for ACs came into effect. The BEE is a government agency under the ministry of power and works to reduce the energy intensity of Indian economy.

Gendered consumption

The study shed light on the varied patterns of usage and even the role of gender in the decision to buy and use an AC. For instance, it was mostly the men in the family who took the decision to buy a cooling appliance, mostly the eldest male in the family, followed by his children.

Though women were aware of the star rating and energy-efficiency stickers seen on refrigerators and ACs, it was at a lower rate compared to male respondents of the study. Women were also less familiar with the specifics of AC brands and features, which also reflected in the say they had in the choice of ACs, the study said.

"Differentiated roles of men and women in decision-making calls for a differentiated communication strategy. Awareness campaigns and interventions targeted specifically for women can be helpful towards more informed and effective participation of women in cooling energy efficiency," said Anna Agarwal, a co-author of the study and a fellow at CPR.

How policy makers can help make informed choices

Rising consumption can allow policy makers to instil energy-efficient choices and low-carbon behaviours, said Agarwal. "How ACs are used also provides opportunities for low-carbon behaviours. Since the most common use of the AC is during the night when people sleep, time-of-day pricing could also help lower the afternoon and night-time peak demand. Along with focussing on AC consumption it is equally relevant to emphasise, understand and encourage the prevalent role of non-air conditioning-based cooling. Recovering and promoting passive cooling alternatives from building design, shading, vegetation and myriad other ways will be core to meeting future cooling needs in a low-carbon manner."

Time-of-day pricing offers different power tariffs for at various times during the day and night, in order to manage peak demand for electricity, among other things. For instance, in Delhi, non-domestic users pay different tariffs for electricity during peak and off-peak hours, as per the latest tariff schedule for 2020-21. Peak hours, between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., attract a 20% surcharge.

Projected demand for cooling and scope for energy efficiency

The countrywide data on AC consumption also reveal that the demand for space cooling is going to rise fast in the coming decades and will have a direct bearing on energy demand as well as emissions of greenhouse gases, the study said.

Only 8% of Indian households currently have room ACs; this, however, is predicted to grow to 40% in less than 20 years and over 300 million residential ACs expected to be purchased in this period, as per ICAP. By 2100, the developing world, driven by China, India and Indonesia, is expected to contribute to a 33-fold rise in global energy demand due to AC use, said this 2019 report by the international NGO Sustainable Energy for All.

Thermal comfort and the choice of cooling devices has key environmental impacts in the form of energy demand and associated emissions, as well as the consumption and emission of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a set of planet-warming greenhouse gases. The International Energy Agency has said that refrigeration and air-conditioning cause 10% of the global carbon emissions. However, India still has low access to cooling in comparison to the rest of the world.

The per capita energy consumed for space cooling in India is 69 kilowatt-hour (kWh) compared to the world average of 272 kWh, according to the ICAP 2019, which has outlined the country's cooling demands across sectors and means to provide sustainable cooling for the period of 2017-18 to 2037-38. In comparison to India, the per capita energy consumption for space cooling in the United States is 1,878 kWh and 152 kWh in Brazil, the ICAP said.

Given that India is likely to see a high demand in energy growth and cooling will be a major reason for it, understanding India's cooling transition is key to make the trajectory ahead sustainable, said Agarwal. "The energy and climate future of India carries implications not just for national objectives but also for global outcomes. This study moves beyond the purely technological emphasis on energy efficiency of ACs to factors like the structure of buildings, the influence of peers, the role of awareness campaigns in contributing to the efficient use of cooling."