India’s humble ceiling fan is a hidden catalyst in the country’s energy transition
Look up, and whirring above you, more often than not, is a ceiling fan with a draught that is essential to cool off during the hot summer months. Ceiling fans are a staple in Indian households, coming in various shades, styles and sizes. Now, they also come with energy savings and the potential to reduce India’s growing electricity consumption. The ceiling fan, experts say, is a hidden catalyst in India’s energy transition that’s going unnoticed.
Ceiling fans are the second most commonly found service product in Indian households, according to the 2019-21 National Family Health Survey, with 88% of households surveyed reporting they had one. India sells around 41 million ceiling fans every year, with both urban and rural households reporting high numbers of ceiling fan ownership. Their near ubiquity also means they account for a large share in India’s residential electricity consumption – around 20%, according to some estimates.
Even though ceiling fans consume less energy than air conditioners, their sheer volume means their total annual energy consumption is “only slightly lower than the total annual energy consumption of room air conditioners,” according to a 2019 government document.
“There’s huge potential to reduce emissions and electricity consumption through replacing old fans with newer ones that are more energy efficient, making them an important part of India’s decarbonisation journey,” said Aditya Chunekar, a fellow at Prayas Energy Group, an energy think tank.
According to India’s 2019 Cooling Plan, by replacing commonly found ceiling fans consuming 70 watts of energy, with energy efficient fans consuming around 50 watts, “energy saving of 10%-15% will be possible in 2027-’28”. Fans that use a lower wattage could bring even greater energy savings, the Plan said. But much of these savings will only be possible if the fans are actually bought and used. A survey by Prayas, led by Chunkar, found that only a quarter of fans available in the market were five star rated. As per 2020 data, only 3% of households had installed star rated fans.
The star rating of an appliance is an indicator of how much electricity it consumes, with five stars indicating the highest available efficiency and one star indicating the lowest. This star rating system is routinely revised by the Bureau of Energy Efficiency.
Last month, the G20 agreed to double the rate of improvement of energy efficiency by 2030. Just like LED light bulbs, ceiling fans are considered a low-hanging fruit for energy efficiency that could help India achieve this goal, say experts.
In 2022, the Bureau of Energy Efficiency made it mandatory for ceiling fan manufacturers to sell only star rated fans and the products had to be prominently labeled at the point of sale. Star labels could only be fixed after taking permission from the Bureau and manufacturers were banned from producing and selling unstarred fans January 1, 2023 onwards.
As of August, there are over 2700 starred fans in the market, but only around 20%-25% are five star rated. A majority of fans supplied in the market are of one star.
“Previously, the average electricity consumption of fans was around 78-82 watts, but with the revised norms, the consumption has reduced to 55 watts and below. Fans in the five star category consume somewhere between 30 and 35 watts, so there is a shift and a reduction in power consumption which could range to up to 50%,” said Ravindra Singh Negi, former chairman of the Indian Fan Manufacturers Association and chief operating officer of Bajaj Electricals.
“The first challenge was to comply and get the products tested to meet the BEE’s [Bureau of Energy Efficiency] standards. This is a tedious process and requires a huge amount of investment and technical changes to the motor, but the industry was able to do this in time to meet deadlines,” Negi said. The second challenge, he said, has been to shield consumers from the rising costs of production.
The high capital costs along with lack of awareness and a tardy start have challenged the government’s attempt to mainstream energy efficient fans, say experts, who nonetheless consider it a welcome step.
Compared to air conditioners and fridges, which have proved the success of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency’s star labeling programme, ceiling fans have been late to the party. Air conditioners were first made part of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency’s standards and labelling programme on a voluntary basis in 2006 and then made mandatory in 2010. The standards for energy efficiency have been revised periodically since then, to encourage innovation and judicious use of electricity. Ceiling fans, however, were introduced to the programme on a voluntary basis in 2010, and made mandatory only last year, 12 years after the programme started. Since 2010, the standards have been revised only once – in 2019.
This lackluster effort to mainstream energy efficient ceiling fans has meant that, until recent years, energy inefficient fans consuming 60 watts or more were abundantly found in the market. In 2012, the Bureau of Energy Efficiency was poised to launch a Super Efficient Equipment Program to incentivise the manufacturing and sale of super energy efficient fans consuming 35 watts of electricity or less. The programme was never launched, but it encouraged manufacturers to create models which were available to consumers in the market. Demand, however, remained low – in 2017, 95% of ceiling fans sold in the market were unlabelled and twice as inefficient compared to the most efficient model in the market.
“Ceiling fans can last for 10, 15, sometimes 20 years. It’s rare for consumers to replace their fans unless they fail, and there is a very small margin of urban consumers who may choose to replace their fans for aesthetic or other reasons. When you buy an energy inefficient ceiling fan, you’re locking in those inefficiencies for more than a decade,” said Pramod Kumar Singh, Senior Director of Research and Programmes at the Alliance for Energy Efficiency Economy (AEEE).
There were also teething problems along the way. A 2016 survey by Consumer Voice, an advocacy group, found that even though manufacturers were able to make energy efficient models, most tested in the survey faltered on air delivery. This has since been rectified, with five star rated fans performing better on air delivery now.
When the Bureau of Energy Efficiency revised its standards of energy efficiency for ceiling fans in 2019, the changes were a huge leap for the industry. A five star rated fan runs on Brush-Less Direct Current technology, which is more expensive than the traditional induction-motor models because two thirds of its parts have to be imported. While a one star fan can be sold from anywhere between Rs 1,300-Rs 1,700, five star rated fans cost at least double – Rs 3,000 and above.
The Energy Efficiency Services Limited, a government subsidiary, announced it would procure Brush-Less Direct Current fans in bulk in order to drive down their prices, but import dependency may come in the way of a steep drop, said Singh.
“Even with millions of orders coming, a price reduction could be in the range of 20% to 25% in the current market, because two thirds of the parts still need to be imported. There won’t be a price reduction from Rs 3,000 to Rs 1,000 rupees so soon,” he said.
A 2022 survey of 25 shops selling ceiling fans, across six states, found that a year after the Bureau of Energy Efficiency’s rules came into force, nearly all still had old stocks of unlabelled fans which were being sold. The survey by Prayas Energy Group also found that two-thirds of the models it surveyed on e-commerce sites “did not have any information on star-labels. Most of these models when compared with the BEE database were one star models. The models with information on star labels were all five star rated. Hence, it looks like labels of only five star rated models are displayed on the product listing page since it acts as a marketing feature.”
Omer Basith, founder and CEO of Virtual Forest, a manufacturer of motor controllers used in super efficient Brush-Less Direct Current fans, said it wasn’t against the Bureau of Energy Efficiency’s rules for old, unstarred stock to be sold in the market. “Prior to the enforcement of the star rating norms, every single fan manufacturer just did everything in their power to exhaust the inventory of non-star rated fans. That meant pushing everything to trade as quickly as they could. The norms require manufacturers to stop selling unstarred fans after January 1, but whatever’s already in trade can still be exhausted. That’s also going to artificially lower the adoption numbers for starred energy efficient fans because retailers are sitting on so much stock.”
Negi too said that the unstarred stock could be of ceiling fans with sizes that are not specified in the notification, and that every manufacturer associated with the Indian Fan Manufacturers Association is in compliance with the Bureau of Energy Efficiency’s new norms.
The Bureau of Energy Efficiency is supposed to undertake surveys and routine testing of products under the standards and labeling programme to ensure they are complying with the new norms, but there is no publicly available data to suggest this has been done for ceiling fans as yet. The Comptroller Auditor General said in a 2020 report that check testing for other products under the S&L programme was “negligible, incomplete and ineffective,” lab testing had been neglected, and label verification “was not taken up at all,” recommending all three be scaled up for better consumer protection.
When reached, officials in the Bureau of Energy Efficiency did not respond to requests for an interview.
Testing outside lab conditions is essential to make sure the product works under various settings that can affect its performance, like in areas with an erratic electricity supply or with high humidity, said Chunekar.
An updated survey by Consumer Voice from March this year, which did its own comparative testing of five star fans in the Indian market, found that all met the Bureau of Energy Efficiency’s norms and complies with air delivery standards as well. Of the four brands tested, Atomberg Efficio performed the best.
“A lot of people are buying fans online these days. Ideally, e-commerce websites should be displaying those labels prominently, so when you buy online you can see them, but that is not being done uniformly. The rules say that the label has to be shown at the point of sale, but there is no explicit mention of e-commerce sites, which is where the government can intervene,” Chunekar said.
Despite high levels of ownership, the market for ceiling fans will only swell as India develops and global warming sets in. A market analysis by IMARC forecasts an annual growth rate of 2.6% between 2023 and 2028, driven by “rapid urbanization and significant growth of the construction industry in the new residential buildings.” More essentially, ceiling fans are an affordable way to stay cool when dealing with extreme heat, which is on the rise in India.
Manufacturers are now on a quest to find cheaper ways to make five star rated fans, in order to reduce input costs. “Five star fans with an induction motor are still a work in progress. Ideally, it should be priced lower than its BLDC counterpart,” said Negi of the Indian Fan Manufacturers Association. Reducing the weight of the fan is another way to potentially reduce costs.
According to Singh from the Alliance for Energy Efficiency Economy, the government must also look to ensure small scale fan manufacturers don’t miss out on this market transformation.
“There are so many small fan manufacturing clusters in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and South India selling fans at Rs 600-Rs 700, for whom it will be difficult to go for that extra capital investment to produce higher efficiency fans. MSMEs [micro, small and medium enterprises] are the backbone of India’s economy, and this is a just transition issue that the government can look into by providing production-linked incentive schemes, for example,” he said.
All experts Mongabay India spoke to were optimistic that the mandatory star rated system would lead to increased sales of higher rated fans eventually, and that it was just a matter of time.
“It was always expected that in this first year, adoption would peak at, you know, maybe 8% to 10% and it’s likely that 8%-10% of fans sold at the end of this year will be BLDC [Brush-Less Direct Current] fans. This is what happened with the other home appliances that have been down the street, like air conditioning. Moving forward a couple of years down the line, I feel like adoption will be much higher,” said Basith.
This article was first published Mongabay.