Reducing Stress on India's Energy Grid Through Efficient and Climate-Friendly Air Conditioning Refrigerants

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As industry leaders gather in Delhi this week for ACRECONF, an international conference on key emerging technologies in the built environment, including air conditioning, lighting and other products with rising demand in Asia. One of the featured discussions is on how alternative refrigerants used as coolants can improve the energy efficiency of room air conditioner (RAC) units. The innovative refrigerants can work with efficient air conditioning units to reduce stress on the power grid and mitigate the climate change impact of these cooling units.

As new issue brief, "Reducing Stress on India's Energy Grid: The Power Sector Benefits of Transitioning to Lower Global Warming Potential and Energy Efficient Refrigerants in Room Air Conditioners," released at ACRECONF by NRDC's Bhaskar Deol, makes clear, switching to RAC refrigerants with lower global warming potential (GWP) than the business-as-usual technologies, commonly used in today's market, could result in a 15% energy savings for India's stressed power grid. This new report discusses the use of these commercially-viable alternative refrigerants and what it can mean for achieving India's national energy and climate goals, alleviating the burdened energy grid, and providing a growing export market for domestic manufacturers.

The Delhi Chapter of the Indian Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ISHRAE) is convening this two-day international stakeholder conference to discuss the latest developments in RAC technology in India and worldwide. The innovative refrigerants are now available to replace hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), one of the most potent of six greenhouse gases, while also operating more efficiently than traditional air conditioners.

Leading manufacturers such as Godrej & Boyce and Daikin are already manufacturing and marketing RAC units using climate-friendly refrigerants, R-290 and R-32, respectively-- demonstrating India's opportunity to not only mitigate climate change, but also to reap the energy benefits of commercially viable options available now.

As the new issue brief clarifies, India's air conditioning market is in need of, and primed to adopt alternative refrigerants that reduce stress on the energy grid, operate more efficiently, open up new export markets and combat climate change.

India's AC market is growing, placing a burden on the energy grid. With India's already high ambient temperatures, rising middle class and fast-growing economic needs, air conditioning use is increasing rapidly. In fact, it is projected to grow five-fold from 2005 to 2030, resulting in increased demand on India's power grid. With 1.2 billion people currently without electricity and daily power outages a regular occurrence due to the current stress on the energy grid, reducing energy demands is vital to supplying reliable power across the country.

Using alternative AC refrigerants is the low hanging fruit to combat climate change. Weather patterns are altered due to climate change, making an already hot India even hotter. This results in a dangerous cycle that requires more air conditioners to keep people comfortable in the face of the increasing heat. The default refrigerant, technology used by most Indian manufacturers today, is HFC-410A that has a GWP of 2,088. HFCs have the potential to raise the global temperature by 0.5°C all by themselves by 2100. The alternatives are the R-290 or propane, which has a GWP of less than 5 and the R-32, which has a GWP of 675. These reductions are significant. Studies estimate that the use of R-32 could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 31% by 2050.

Alternative energy efficient technology is available. As the air conditioning market expands, utilizing and providing a supportive policy framework to encourage the use of energy efficient refrigerants can help address the growing energy crisis in India. R-290 is already on the market and could save 11.9 gigawatt-hour (GWh) of energy per month over the HFC-410A refrigerant that is currently being used. It has a 5 star energy efficiency rating from India's Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) and a recent Godrej & Boyce model was labeled the "Diet AC" because it surpassed India's energy efficiency standards. R-32 is also a viable option that is being sold in 30 different countries. Daikin's model received the prestigious grand prize for excellence in energy efficiency and conservation in Japan. The U.S. recently approved both R-290 and R-32 as viable alternatives under its Significant New Alternatives Program (SNAP). Switching to lower-GWP options could result in a 15% energy savings.

There is a supportive international framework to enable the transition to alternative refrigerants in India. India can seek support from the Montreal Protocol framework that is already in place and has served as a successful tool in addressing a transition away from ozone-depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). India is in the process of phasing out use of ozone depleting refrigerants as part of its national commitment under the Montreal Protocol. However, in the move away from CFCs that deplete the ozone, the industry is substituting CFCs with HFCs that have a significant global warming impact, over a thousand times stronger than carbon dioxide. It is almost certain that high-GWP HFCs would also need to be phased out eventually. In order to be efficient, India could utilize the Montreal Protocol to leapfrog to low-GWP alternatives right away, rather than using technology that will become globally obsolete.

Switching to alternative refrigerants supports national goals. Using energy efficient refrigerants in air conditioners supports the central government's goals to improve access to energy while achieving energy security. During U.S. President Obama's recent visit, Prime Minister Modi announced his commitment to making concrete progress on phasing down HFCs at the Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol in 2015. The opportunities are vast. What is clear is that the business-as-usual scenario will place such a burden on the energy grid that the national goals will be impossible to reach.

Alternative refrigerants support Indian manufacturers keeping pace with international market trends. In line with Prime Minister Modi's "Make In India" campaign, Indian manufacturers could potentially benefit significantly from switching to alternative low-GWP refrigerants that are being adopted in key markets worldwide. Global markets such as Europe, Japan, the U.S., and China are already phasing-down use of high-GWP HFCs. The alternatives, R-290 and R-32, are currently available and have superior energy efficiency ratings. India could penetrate many markets if it pursued these energy efficient alternatives. Continuing down the path of HFC-410A forecloses these opportunities.

The opportunity for industry, the government, and Indian air conditioner consumers is significant. Leapfrogging over antiquated, soon-to-be obsolete, and inefficient refrigerants will benefit the power sector while saving consumers money. It will also advance the Indian economy, ensure Indian industries can compete in the international market, and help mitigate climate change, while supporting India's national goals of being energy secure in the face of rapidly rising energy demands from the world's third largest economy.

Co-authored by Shannon Dilley, NRDC Vermont Law School Fellow