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.

Key Insights and Research Findings

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While most homes have a combination of fans and coolers, a third have fans and ACs. 87% of ACs were bought brand-new, and in most cases were purchased in the last 2-3 years. The relative newness of AC purchase demonstrates the rising trend of cooling uptake in urban India.

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78% of AC-owning households have at least one energy-efficient rated AC. A 3-star rated AC (mid-range) 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.60% of households use ACs for an average of 3-6 hours daily during peak summer months. Even in the wealthiest neighbourhoods, only 15% of households use ACs for more than 8 hours per day.

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Higher prices and low availability are two key factors that prevent people from buying 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.

Women were less involved in decision-making around cooling appliances. They were also less aware of technical aspects, and less aware of the government’s energy-efficient schemes. Women reported knowing the meaning of energy efficiency stickers seen on refrigerators and ACs at a relatively lower rate compared to their male counterparts.

There are several important determinants of AC consumption in India. These include structural factors (e.g residing above the ground floor); awareness around energy efficiency, bills, and savings (e.g owning efficient fans, and knowing the per unit cost of electricity); and socio-economic factors (e.g having higher incomes).

Interested in learning more? The paper 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.


(This post originally appeared on Environmentality, a blog by the Initiative for Climate, Energy and Environment at the Centre for Policy Research.)