Policy Engagements and Blogs

The What, Why, and How of Changing Cooling Energy Consumption in India’s Urban Households

March 24, 2021


India’s urbanising middle class is at the brink of an unprecedented increase in residential cooling demand. Rapid urbanization, increasing incomes, and rising temperatures are driving more Indians to buy cooling appliances. Cooling demand is projected to be a significant driver of future electricity consumption; between 2019 and 2030, it is estimated that 4.8 billion new units of cooling equipment will be sold globally, resulting in a large rise in greenhouse gas emissions. India ranks first among lower-middle income countries with an increasingly affluent middle class purchasing their first air conditioner (AC). While 8% of the current Indian households have room ACs, this is predicted to grow six-fold in less than twenty years. The associated energy use is non-trivial; in Delhi alone, energy use for cooling accounts for 40–60% of the peak summer load. Therefore, understanding the growth in cooling demand, and finding ways to sustainably shape its trajectory, remains a critical task not only for India’s energy future, but for its efforts to mitigate climate change.

Moving towards a low-carbon cooling pathway requires an understanding of the factors driving energy demand. However, little is understood about the dynamics of changing cooling consumption in India. How is cooling conceptualised, and what cooling options do people use? How, when and why are people purchasing and using their ACs? Who is buying energy-efficient ACs? And is cooling consumption gendered?

New research by the Centre for Policy Research and the University of Oxford examines these fundamental questions around India’s cooling transition. Using descriptive statistics, machine learning, and regression analysis, Radhika Khosla, Anna Agarwal, Neelanjan Sircar, and Deepaboli Chatterjee unpack cooling demand in one of the fastest and largest urbanising regions in the world. They draw on survey data from over 2000 households in Delhi to analyse perceptions of thermal comfort, characterize the conditions under which households show greater AC use, and examine the factors contributing to more energy-efficient cooling choices.

Some key findings from this research include:

The proliferation of energy intensive cooling appliances is relatively recent. Within the geography of one city, 43% of households in the sample own one AC, while 18% of households in the same neighbourhoods own only a fan. Interventions that rapidly scale up the energy efficiency of cooling appliances – at a speed that matches the fast rate of increasing AC and cooler penetration – will be essential to locking-in low-carbon thermal comfort.
78% of AC-owning households have at least one energy-efficient rated AC. A 3-star rated AC (mid-range of energy efficiency) is the most popular choice, followed by the most efficient 5-star AC. However, less than 5% of the households reported energy efficiency ratings as a reason for determining which kind of AC to buy.
Higher price and low availability are two key factors that prevent people from buying more energy-efficient ACs. On the other hand, energy and electricity bill savings, and environmental consciousness are the most common reasons for opting for 4- and 5-star ACs.
The majority of households use their ACs for an average of 3-6 hours every day during peak summer months. Even in the wealthiest neighbourhoods, during the hottest months of the year, only about 15% of households use ACs for more than 8 hours per day.
Household habits and structural factors shape AC usage, but awareness around energy efficiency, bills, and savings – as well as socio-economic factors – are also important determinants of cooling consumption. Those who are aware of the subsidized LED bulbs scheme, own star-rated fans, and know the per-unit cost of electricity are predicted to have fewer hours of AC usage.
Women were less involved in decision-making around cooling appliances, less aware of technical aspects about their appliances, and less aware of the government’s energy-efficient schemes. Women also reported knowing the meaning of energy efficiency stickers seen on refrigerators and ACs at a relatively lower rate compared to their male counterparts.
The What, Why, and How of Changing Cooling Energy Consumption in India’s Urban Households by Radhika Khosla, Anna Agarwal, Neelanjan Sircar, and Deepaboli Chatterjee also provides policy recommendations for a low-carbon cooling trajectory in India. Download the open-access PDF version of this journal article here.