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How Hydrocarbons Can Help India's Energy Crisis

Less than 30% of Indian families today own a refrigerator. In comparison, ownership of refrigerators in China is already past 90%. What’s more interesting is that in a hot country like India, air conditioners are used by less than five percent of the population. A huge reason for low penetration of essential goods like refrigerators is the unreliability of electric supply. Refrigerators do not bring any value unless power supply is uninterrupted, and this is a luxury for many parts of India.

But there has been a rapid change in both electricity generation and distribution across India. A majority of states in the relatively developed southern regions of the country already have 100% access to power. Electricity generation itself has seen substantial growth with conventional energy sources rising at nearly five percent each year. Solar power generation is set to double between now and 2020.

This may however not be enough for a country with a rapidly rising middle class. Ownership of air conditioners is expected to increase from 4% in 2010 to 30% by 2020 and 73% by 2030. The electricity consumption from room ACs alone is expected to increase from 8 TWh to 239 TWh in this period. The nominal five percent growth in electricity generation may simply not be enough to cater to this growing demand for energy.

The only way to meet this energy demand besides ramping up electricity generation is to make consumption more efficient. Between 1986 and 2016, the average annual power consumed by a 18 c.f refrigerator fell from 1400 kWh to just over 350 kWh. In effect, there could be a four-time increase in refrigerator ownership without the need to ramp up production. For a country like India to meet its energy demands, refrigeration needs to continue undergoing a similar improvement in efficiency over the next couple of decades.

A key ingredient to drive energy efficiency is hydrocarbon (HC). Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) continue to be a popular refrigerant in use today and although their Ozone depleting potential (ODP) is not as high as Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), their global warming potential (GWP) is just as high. As a result, there is a drive towards replacing HFCs with hydrocarbons like butane, propane and cyclopropane. An IDW study points out that the use of HCs as refrigerant has remained low for a while now because of its flammability, but in closed systems like refrigeration, they have proven to be as safe as HFCs.

But more importantly, HCs are vital to increased energy efficiency. HC-based refrigeration systems are nearly 50% more efficient than FC-based refrigerators when it comes to heat conduction. Such systems also contribute to 20% lower operating pressures that reduce the load on a compressor. In effect, a HC-based refrigeration system is expected to bring in an energy saving of anywhere between 17% to 54% compared to FC-based refrigerators.

India’s plan to phase out HFCs by 2030 and replace them with HCs could thus mean more than just environment protection. It is a critical measure that the country needs to take in order to make sure that a power-hungry nation would be able to meet its demands through not just higher power output, but also an increasingly efficient power consumption model.

Photo Credit: Sarnil Prasad via Flickr

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