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How appliances have supported a world in lockdown and what this means for energy efficiency

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge public health worldwide, it has also abruptly affected economies, society and people’s lives. With many people confined to their homes, working remotely and home-schooling, interest in appliances and consumer electronics has risen. It is vital that new appliances bought during and after the pandemic are as efficient as possible to outpace higher ownership patterns and avoid increased energy consumption levels after the crisis.

Measures to contain the virus have triggered a decline in energy demand and corresponding CO2 emissions. While activity has diminished in industry, businesses and transport, the residential sector has gained more prominence and energy use patterns within households have changed. Such changes may continue in the long term and become embedded into new lifestyles, as the current situation influences the new normal.

The crisis has promoted the introduction of new technologies for educational purposes, a recent OECD survey showed, and many students now have computers and internet access for the first time. Households where several members have to be teleworking or home-schooling at the same time have had to adapt by acquiring additional computers and other office equipment such as printers and monitors.

Additional time spent indoors also leads to changing comfort requirements. Small appliances and consumer electronics have become more important to everyday life, such as those for entertainment (e.g. TVs and media players) and cooking (e.g. microwaves and blenders). Increased health concerns may also augment demand for devices such as air-filtering systems.

The increase in time spent at home is pushing up energy consumption. For remote working, this increase may be offset by lower energy consumption in offices and a large reduction in fuel use for commuting.

In the past few months, there has been a remarkable increase in public interest in acquiring appliances. One way of gauging public interest is to look at the search volume index (SVI) from Google Trends. The figures below compare worldwide interest in recent months for four equipment types (PCs, TVs, microwaves and blenders) for the category “shopping”, compared with last year. The data don’t reflect actual sales but do show that interest in appliances has risen since the beginning of the confinement period.

Search volume indices for PCs, February to June, 2019 and 2020

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Search volume indices for TVs, February to June, 2019 and 2020

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Search volume indices for blenders, February to June, 2019 and 2020

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Search volume indices for microwaves, February to June, 2019 and 2020

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In some countries severely affected by the pandemic, there is a visible spike in interest in computers coinciding with the beginning of confinement measures and/or with when the pandemic first struck. This may indicate that computers were a vital part of helping people to adapt to the new reality, especially for remote working and schooling.

Search volume indices of PCs for selected countries, February to June, 2019 and 2020

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These trends become particularly relevant as appliances1 are the second-largest residential end use of energy in IEA member countries. They consume over 20% of total residential energy (after space heating), a proportion that has been increasing during the past decades. Up to 30% of residential carbon emissions come from the use of appliances2 (for detailed end use energy and emissions data across sectors see the new edition of the IEA Energy Efficiency Indicators Data Service).

At the global level, residential appliances account for about 15% of global final electricity demand, or one-quarter of electricity used in buildings. If space heating or space cooling equipment were considered, these shares would be significantly higher.

In IEA member countries, the energy intensity of appliances increased by over 10% between 2000 and 2018, even though technical efficiency increased. While a few countries, including Japan and the United Kingdom, showed significant decreases in energy intensity during this period, the energy intensity of appliances per dwelling (GJ/ dwelling) has significantly increased in most IEA member countries, for example in France and the United States.

Change in appliances intensity as measured in GJ per dwelling, 2000-2018

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Although the residential sector has benefited from significant energy efficiency improvements, greater use of appliances, higher appliance ownership and increasing numbers of households have pushed up energy consumption, offsetting gains from the diffusion of more efficient equipment. In recent years, appliance numbers per dwelling have increased markedly for most appliance types, especially computers and other information and communication technology equipment.

It is important that new appliances bought to improve quality of life during and after the pandemic – and to adapt to changes in behaviour and lifestyle – are efficient ones. More efficient appliances are needed to outpace higher ownership patterns and avoid increased consumption after the crisis, given that the new equipment bought will likely be in use for some years.

Although the efficiency of appliances has increased recently, further improvements will be needed. Energy efficiency is a fundamental component of clean energy transitions and will deliver 37% of the carbon reduction required to meet climate goals by 2050.

Governments play a crucial role in promoting energy efficiency for the benefit of all. Minimum energy performance standards (MEPS) and energy labelling have proven to be highly effective policy tools to improve the efficiency of new appliances. Such measures are now used in over 80 countries. For example, the European Union’s Eco-design directive requires a minimum energy efficiency performance for newly sold appliances. EU energy-related carbon emissions are over 300 million tonnes lower (7% of current emissions) due to this directive alone. In addition, consumer energy bills fell by EUR 63 billion and EUR 66 billion in extra revenue was generated for the commercial sector.

The People’s Republic of China’s extensive MEPS programme began in 1989, with eight appliance types initially covered. The performance requirements and the type of appliances included have increased significantly since. These programmes have raised the energy efficiency of products sold, while the typical purchase price of the products regulated have continued to fall.

China’s mandatory energy labelling scheme has also evolved. In 2016 China’s Digital Energy Label was launched, the first of its kind. A QR code was added to the energy label and an accompanying mobile application provides additional information to consumers. The system provides programme managers with improved market surveillance, which helps determine when standards can be raised and makes compliance monitoring more effective. In the first year alone, the QR code was scanned more than 85 million times.

Energy efficiency can play a key role in the response to the current crisis and recovery. With appropriate planning, governments are able to create the right incentives and embed efficiency into their economic stimulus packages. This is relevant not only to make sure that recovery plans target the longer-term challenge of climate change, but also because energy efficiency can make a significant contribution to the economic recovery. Demand for more efficient appliances, for instance, can boost the manufacturing industry by creating jobs and reducing prices, ultimately increasing the uptake of efficient appliances by households worldwide.

Efficient appliances also benefit final consumers, helping them to save on energy bills – a key consideration in a context of economic crisis in which many people have lost at least part of their revenue.

References
  1. Residential appliances encompass two main categories: large appliances (sometimes also called white appliances or white goods – e.g. refrigerators) and other (usually smaller) appliances, like PCs or TVs. It does not include air-conditioners, or cooking stoves/ ovens.

  2. With emissions from electricity generation reallocated to the final consumption end uses.