Cooling isn’t luxury: Air conditioning can save lives, livelihood, make India world growth engine

Like in several other parts of the world, cooling and air-conditioning must be considered an essential service in India, with a focus on delivering safe and sustainable cooling for all.

By Ravichandran Purushothaman

As we reflect on the recent COVID-19 pandemic and our lockdown learnings, there is further clarity on the essential services required for our country. It is important to acknowledge the efforts of both our central and state governments on its exemplary coordination and crisis preparedness – a lesson in the efficient utilisation of their collective strengths that could be implemented across many other sectors and
departments. The government’s response to proactively to identify the various essential services brought
forth an important discussion to understand – is cooling an essential service?

Like in several other parts of the world, cooling and air-conditioning must be considered an essential service in India, with a focus on delivering safe and sustainable cooling for all, bearing in mind the Paris agreement, Montreal protocol and the Kigali agreements.

Cooling is often overlooked as an urgent issue as a large part of our population lack access to energy, which is the base minimum requirement to access cooling. The economic and social costs of not having
sustainable and affordable cooling is not adequately debated owing to limited understanding. When we
think of Cooling, often the first thing that comes to our mind is air conditioners, a luxury item accessible to a small population. The blind spot here is that cooling is more so essential for the rural poor and urban slums.

Of the world’s 15 hottest places, 10 are in India – with most of them experiencing extreme temperatures.
The onset of climate change adds further heat stress to most of our country. The heat stress and its compounding effect due to climate change leads to heavy death tolls across the country, the majority
among them being women and the poor. Access to affordable cooling can far reduce the death rate, as has been proven in in some developed nations like the United States.

In a post COVID-19 world, where much of the discussion is on economic recovery alongside working in the new normal, we could be losing over 2% of work hours due to excessive heat. As the number of hot days increase, the importance of effective and safe cooling will come to be recognised across segments. In a warm country like India, the recognition that cooling will improve working conditions, productivity and facilitate safe living is a given.

Another aspect of cooling and air-conditioning is that its importance is often discussed mostly only at the level of domestic and residential use. It has several other essential applications, such as in hospitals,
electronic clean rooms, power plant control rooms, data centers, etc. It is critical in maintaining sanitation and hygiene and minimizing the concentration of airborne particles and other contaminants which is significant in several industries including the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries and hospitals.

Cooling and air conditioning have a critical role in maintaining indoor air quality and ventilation, thus
preventing recirculation of air within confined spaces, as this acts as a carrier of airborne contaminants
brought in by movement of people and parts, thereby causing harm to products and people occupying these spaces. This further highlights the importance of cooling and refrigeration in hospitals and the
pharmaceutical industry.

In the agriculture and food processing sector, the presence of robust cooling infrastructure has the
potential to save lives and livelihoods, limit food waste levels and bridge the nutrition gap in countries like India. A strong cold chain network is the link between the farm and the fork, ensuring stable temperatures and humidity levels which keeps food safe & fresh for a longer duration. In this regard, it is indeed remarkable that Cold Chain is now recognized as an essential service.

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The government has already taken significant steps to increase liquidity and stimulating economic
recovery in the country. Despite the Covid induced setbacks, India is poised to be amongst the growth
engines of the world, in which the Cooling and Air-conditioning sectors will play an important role. While air conditioning is an essential part of our everyday life, two aspects require due consideration. The first is improving the overall energy productivity from air conditioning sector and the second is to make India the global hot spot for air conditioning manufacturing.

Energy Productivity: Improving India’s energy productivity & efficiency first requires a conducive policy framework, ensuring affordable and sustainable cooling for all. India has already taken the right steps through the Integrated India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP) which provides a 20-year perspective to address the cooling requirements across sectors in India. It has set several targets such as reducing energy demand for cooling by 25% to 40% by 2037-38. The key to its success lies in effective implementation. Their key recommendations include –

  • Reduce cooling demand across sectors by 20% to 25 % by year 2037-38.
  • Reduce cooling energy requirements by 25% to 40% by year 2037-38.
  • Reduce refrigerant demand by 25% to 30% by year 2037-38.
  • Train and certify 100,000 servicing sector technicians by 2022-23, in synergy with Skill India Mission.

Making India the global hot spot for air conditioning manufacturing: This can be viewed on three pillars: Research & Development/ Innovation, Local Manufacturing, Digitalization.

Research and Development: While we import most of the commercial air conditioning components, India’s entries for the global cooling prize were also shortlisted, showcasing its domain knowledge and talent.

Globally, the technologies applied within the industry largely come from Japan, Europe and U.S.A.
For India to become a global hot spot in manufacturing for this sector, we will need a strong ecosystem
that can develop indigenous products with improvements in existing technologies & disruptive
innovations. Some of the short-listed entries at the global cooling prize gives the indication that India has embarked upon this journey. However, to achieve a long-term impact, involving the next generation is of essence, by integrating HVACR into the engineering curriculum in India.

Local Manufacturing: Most of the major air conditioning manufacturers have factories in China where the market size is about 20 times the size of India; while India continuously works towards increasing its
penetration levels which are at around 5 to 7%. For manufacturers to start looking at ramping up India’s
manufacturing base, we should look at strengthening our R&D capability, capacity and skill levels and look at having policy frameworks which will recognize cooling as an essential requirement to improve the productivity and safety of citizens.

Digitalization: With the outbreak of the global pandemic, the world is experiencing a cascade of changes. As we enter a ‘new normal’, the digital transformation will play a big role in emphasizing a low-touch-low- carbon economy. In the air conditioning and cooling industry, adoption of cutting-edge technologies such as IoT and cloud solutions, which can enable remote management with the help of connected devices, digital service delivery and sales models, will become the cornerstone of growth of the industry. A focus on technological innovations in this regard will help the industry become more energy efficient, promote safer practices and reducing the need for human intervention.

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In the coming years, it is critical that we recognize the opportunity for growth and work towards providing sustainable cooling for all through effective collaboration between Industry, government, universities and make India a global manufacturing hub for Air Conditioning & Refrigeration.

  • Ravichandran Purushothaman is President, Danfoss India (India Region). Views expressed are the author’s own.

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