Rising AC sales and surging demand for cooling escalates India's environmental challenges - Hindustan Times

Rising AC sales and surging demand for cooling escalates India's environmental challenges

Jun 10, 2024 07:00 AM IST

The peak electricity demand, largely driven by cooling needs, has hit about 250 gigawatts, mostly generated from coal, thus worsening climate impacts

With soaring temperatures and heat waves causing health problems, air conditioners (ACs) have become essential for creating cooler, comfortable spaces. However, their widespread use expels heat exhaust outdoors, worsening the environmental crisis.

As the country experiences hotter summers, ACs have transitioned from luxury items to necessities(Mohd Zakir/HT File Photo) PREMIUM
As the country experiences hotter summers, ACs have transitioned from luxury items to necessities(Mohd Zakir/HT File Photo)

As the country experiences hotter summers, ACs have transitioned from luxury items to necessities. Their increased use strains India's energy infrastructure, leading to higher emissions and more stress on the power grid. “As Indian cities warm, peak electricity demand and overall consumption will rise. While this benefits the power sector, it poses risks to citizens. Without choosing the right energy sources, we face significant health impacts from air pollution and climate change,” said Nandikesh Sivalingam, director of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).

Consumer electronic industry bodies estimated air conditioner sales in India reached 11.5 million units in 2023, with double-digit growth expected this year. Due to record-breaking temperatures, demand for ACs has soared, with sales expected to reach 14 million units this year and a projected 30-40 percent increase over the summer, according to Sunil Vachani, president, Consumer Electronics and Appliances Manufacturers Association (CEAMA).

This surge in AC use brings substantial environmental implications. “The overall projection is that AC numbers will increase eleven-fold. Growing affluence and rising heat index will influence this trend. Growing AC use will increase energy intensity in buildings, requiring significant focus on improving thermal comfort to reduce air-conditioned hours,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the carbon footprint of air conditioners varies by size: a 1-ton unit emits 1.5 to 2 tons of CO2 annually, a 1.5-ton unit emits 2.5 to 3 tons, and a 2-ton unit emits 3.5 to 4 tons. These emissions are comparable to driving a car for 6,000 to 16,000 kilometres and come mainly from the electricity used, typically from fossil fuels.

India's peak electricity demand hit about 250 gigawatts on both day and night. The widespread use of ACs significantly increases electricity consumption, and by 2050, this demand could triple, leading to higher greenhouse gas emissions if energy continues to come from fossil fuels. “Estimates suggest that about 10% of India's electricity demand is for cooling. With rising temperatures and improving economic conditions, people will likely buy more cooling appliances, further increasing electricity demand,” explained Sunil Dahiya, analyst at CREA.

Dahiya added, "The IEA predicts that about 40 to 50% of India's growth in electricity demand by 2050 could come from cooling needs. This is a significant number, and while we cannot stop it, it highlights the global nature of climate change."

Sivalingam explained that the highest demand is during the day when offices and commercial spaces are operational and the evening peak is when households use ACs. “A peculiar example this year is that we have reached about 250 gigawatts (GW) of peak electricity demand during the day,” said Dahiya. Delhi alone recorded over 8,300 megawatts (8.3 GW) on May 29. “Night-time peak demand has also been around 245 GW, indicating high cooling demand both day and night. Over 70% of our electricity comes from coal, exacerbating climate impacts and creating a vicious cycle.”

Why are ACs exploding?

Recent reports have highlighted the risks associated with constant AC use, including the potential for explosions. On May 30, 2024, an air conditioner exploded in a flat in Noida's Sector 104, causing a massive fire that spread to other flats. On May 3, 2024, an AC explosion at a Kalyan Jewellers store in Bellary, Karnataka, left three people injured. In Chengalpet, Tamil Nadu, an AC explosion on May 15, 2023, resulted in a 26-year-old man suffering 35 percent burns.

Poorly maintained units or those running on outdated refrigerants can pose significant safety hazards, said experts. Regular maintenance and adherence to safety standards are essential to prevent such accidents, especially in densely populated cities. “Most ACs sold are safe and undergo rigorous safety testing by manufacturers in full compliance with government regulations. Some of the recent accidents involving air-conditioners may have happened because of extraordinary hot weather, continuous running of ACs, and poor operations and maintenance,” said Satish Kumar, president and executive director, Alliance for an Energy Efficient Economy (AEEE).

Emphasising the urgency of improving energy efficiency, Kumar said, “Whatever India uses in total power consumption today will be used by cooling appliances only in another 20 years. India can tighten the minimum energy performance standards set by the Bureau of Energy Efficiency for air-conditioners, chillers, and fans. We must also set our temperature at 27 degrees Celsius and use it with ceiling fans. These actions can help reduce carbon emissions from cooling,” he said.

India’s Cooling Action Plan

The Ozone Cell of the environment ministry launched the India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP) in March 2019. The plan aims to address India's cooling needs over a 20-year horizon with goals such as reducing cooling and refrigerant demand and enhancing energy efficiency through better technology.

A Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) official reported significant progress in the past five years, particularly with the Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) for commercial buildings and the Eco Niwas Samhita for residential buildings. BEE has also introduced minimum energy performance standards (MEPS) and a star labelling program for refrigerators and air conditioners, which have contributed to reduced energy consumption. “So far, 23 states have notified ECBC, and two more are in the process. For Eco Niwas Samhita, we are collaborating with state agencies for implementation. We recommend presetting room AC temperatures to 24 degree Celsius to further reduce energy usage. New energy consumption standards for room ACs are effective from July 1, 2022, to December 31, 2024, and will be updated later this year,” the official added.

Highlighting the lack of dedicated budgets and funding allocated to the ministries to achieve climate goals, Kumar said, “Considering the rate of growth of temperature year-on-year, much more focus and efforts are needed to provide thermal comfort for all and to make India’s built environment more resilient to deal with extreme heat events.”

Optimising AC use

Experts suggest multiple strategies for Indian consumers to use ACs more efficiently and minimise their carbon footprint. “With AC-related electricity demand as the fastest growing component of India's residential and commercial electricity use, peak load is increasing year on year, and it will continue to grow significantly for at least the next three decades. In this context, building design and material, super-efficient cooling appliances, and demand-side management approaches become critical for reducing energy load and consequent emissions,” said Vaibhav Chaturvedi, fellow, Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

Roychowdhury emphasised the need for stringent and mandatory enforcement of energy conservation building codes for commercial and residential buildings, adopting passive architectural features, and appropriate insulation to reduce thermal load and heat gain. “At the same time, stringent appliance efficiency standards should be adopted. A mandate for disclosure of annual electricity consumption by buildings to ensure sustained energy performance is another important factor,” she said.

Choosing energy-efficient models can significantly reduce energy consumption. In suitable regions, evaporative coolers and radiant cooling systems are efficient alternatives to traditional ACs. “Technologies like heat pumps, radiant cooling, and district cooling can be more efficient if designed correctly. The biggest impact comes from designing buildings to reduce heat gain, leading to smaller ACs and lower energy bills,” said Kumar. Solar-powered and membrane-based AC systems are also promising for reducing the environmental footprint of cooling.

To better manage nighttime demand, exploring renewable energy and various energy storage options is essential. “Proper demand-side management will be crucial in bridging the gap between peak and average demand, ensuring that we do not need to invest in additional capacity that would only be used for short periods. Additionally, fossil fuel plants should be phased out systematically to avoid unnecessary environmental impact,” said Sivalingam.

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