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The Covid-19 crisis has affected the energy intensity of appliances via a range of structural and technical efficiency factors. In the short term, three main appliance purchasing and usage patterns seem to be emerging:

  • First, in some countries, people are purchasing new appliances, such as cooking equipment or home entertainment devices, to perform services that would normally have been procured outside the home. Similarly, people are buying additional IT equipment for working or studying from home.
  • Second, lockdowns and consumer uncertainty have led to temporary delays in some appliance purchases, but these have been largely offset by post-lockdown spikes in demand and in some cases, stronger online sales.
  • Third, the types, timing and frequency of appliance use are changing, as people spend more time at home. As usage increases, appliances may also be reaching the end of their lifetimes sooner, leading to replacement purchases. 


Crisis-induced factors that could affect appliance energy intensity

Type of effect Factor Potential impact on energy intensity improvement

Activity and structural

Use has risen for most household appliance types, increasing residential energy use.

Technical efficiency Longer term: Economic recession and job losses lead to lower rates of appliance and equipment replacement in the next 1-2 years.
Longer term: Regulators delay planned strengthening of minimum energy performance standards during the economic crisis.
Short term: More frequent use of appliances due to increased time at home shortens appliance life and accelerates replacement.
Short term: Higher residential energy consumption due to increased time at home encourages home owners to invest in efficient appliances and equipment.
Government stimulus spending targeted at appliance recycling schemes, replace ageing, inefficient appliances with models that exceed minimum energy performance standards.

All factors considered, the short-term outlook globally is for an increase in appliance purchases and use, spurred by lockdowns and social distancing. While more time at home will increase appliances’ energy use, growth in new appliance purchases and replacements will lead to technical efficiency improvements in some markets, reducing the energy intensity of the global appliances stock.

Longer-term changes to the technical efficiency of the global appliance stock will depend on the shape of the economic recovery, including government stimulus packages: a slow recovery might delay purchases of newer, more efficient models for both first-time and replacement appliances, and a quick recovery boost such purchases.

Activity and structural impacts

The Covid-19 lockdowns have changed energy use profiles in residential buildings, with hourly demand patterns on weekdays resembling those of a normal Sunday. Electricity utility data show how the changing use of appliances is responsible for the changing shape of residential electricity demand. 

Changes in energy usage for one utility in the Netherlands, lockdown period compared with pre-lockdown period

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For example, smart meter data from one utility in the Netherlands showed that washing machines and dryers run more frequently during the week and less on weekends. Another noticeable change was the reduced demand for electric vehicle charging, as people made fewer trips during the lockdown, whereas the use of lighting and home entertainment went up significantly.

Digital technology use is up for both for work and entertainment, as options for in-person leisure activities are limited. Web searches for popular media streaming services were 60% higher than 2019 levels1 at the height of lockdowns, and interest has remained higher all year, compared with 2019. This pushes up not only residential energy consumption but also demand in data centres and by networks: global Internet traffic surged by almost 40% between February and mid-April. However, several network operators in Europe reported that network electricity usage remained flat despite data traffic spiking by 50% or more. This decoupling between data traffic and energy use follows broader energy efficiency trends in the sector in recent years, with the energy efficiency of data transmission and computing doubling every two to three years.

While it is difficult to predict the permanence of these behavioural changes, these usage patterns are likely to remain in the short term as several countries have introduced new Covid-19-related restrictions in the second half of 2020.

These changes will increase residential building energy intensity (energy use per floor space). On an energy use per activity basis, changing appliance use may have benefits for energy intensity because some activities may be less energy intensive when performed with household appliances than with commercial appliances. For example, cooking a meal at home – depending on the meal and number of people eating – could use as little as half a kilowatt-hour, whereas research from the United Kingdom suggests cooking a restaurant meal could require 1.5 kWh to 3.3 kWh, as energy-intensive appliances such as deep fryers and heat lamps tend to remain on constantly.

However, changes in the energy intensity for specific activities (like cooking) are unlikely to be distinguishable from the rest of overall buildings sector energy intensity changes driven by Covid-19. Overall, increased residential energy use – combined with changes in commercial building energy intensity resulting from lower patronage while buildings remain open – is expected to increase the energy intensity of the buildings sector.

Technical efficiency impacts

In the short term, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have improved the technical efficiency of the appliance stock, as increased time spent at home appears to have boosted purchases of new appliances, which tend to be more efficient than older models. In the longer term, some effects of the pandemic could boost appliances’ technical efficiency while other effects could hinder efficiency gains (see table above). A deeper recession, for example, would slow purchases of new appliances and appliance replacements.

Worldwide weekly online shopping search indices for freezers, 2018-2020

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Worldwide weekly online shopping search indices for washing machines, 2018-2020

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Worldwide weekly online shopping search indices for dishwashers, 2018-2020

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In some countries, prompted by lockdowns, people have bought additional appliances to use in the home. Online shopping search indices suggest demand initially increased for appliances seen as essential in a crisis, such as freezers to guard against food shortages. Deep freezer purchases were reportedly 45% higher in the first quarter of 2020 compared with the first quarter of 2019 in the United States and more than doubled in Turkey in the same timeframe2.

When lockdowns came into place, interest in purchases of whitegoods such as dishwashers and washing machines initially tailed off worldwide but by May had increased by 20-40% year-on-year for certain appliances. US whitegoods sales increased by 6% year-on-year in March and by the third quarter of 2020, many manufacturers reported shortages as supply chains affected by Covid-19 safety protocols struggled to keep up with demand. In Turkey, whitegoods sales rose by 11% in the first half of 2020 compared with the first half of 2019.3 Similar trends were reported in Korea and Singapore, where sales for cooking appliances and dishwashers went up. In China, refrigerator sales initially declined in March, as non-urgent purchases were postponed, but had bounced back by summer, boosted by stronger online sales.

Sales of small appliances such as soda machines and bread makers also grew during lockdowns, particularly in the United States, as people sought to limit time spent food shopping and increased DIY leisure activities. Globally, IT equipment purchases jumped, as people in Europe, North America and Asia adapted to working from home.

As a result of these trends, the global stock of appliances is likely to have become more efficient because new purchases are covered by minimum energy performance standards and/or labelling programmes in many markets, guaranteeing that new purchases are more efficient, particularly compared with replacement appliances.

For example, in countries where shopping search indices for refrigerators indicate increased intent to buy, performance standards are likely to have been strengthened since the last purchase was made (given the long lifetimes of refrigerators) while labels are also likely to have been updated, alerting consumers to the most efficient models.

Refrigerator search indices for selected countries, most recent update of minimum energy performance standards and types of labels in place

Country

Change in average online search indices (2020 compared with 2019)

Most recent update to standards

Labels

Brazil

1.7%

2015

Mandatory comparative and voluntary endorsement

India

2.6%

2007

Mandatory comparative

Japan

12.1%

2006

Mandatory comparative and voluntary endorsement

Mexico

8.6%

2018

Mandatory comparative and voluntary endorsement

Sweden

10.6%

2017

Mandatory comparative and voluntary endorsement

United States

11.5%

2014

Mandatory comparative and voluntary endorsement

Note: Data are average of 6 January to 31 October 2020 compared with the same period in 2019 of searches within the Shopping category for the topic of “refrigerator”. Source: Google Trends.

In both developed and developing markets, appliance replacements will on average be more energy efficient, even in an economic recession, for two main reasons. First, policies such as performance standards and labelling have been continually strengthened in many countries, reinforcing the general trend for new appliances to be much more efficient than those coming to the end of their lifetimes. 

Second, unlike other energy-efficient equipment, which sometimes has higher upfront costs, efficient appliances are not always more expensive for consumers to purchase. For example, efficient air conditioners are found at all price points in many Southeast Asian countries, dampening the risk that consumers will shy away from high efficiency appliances during the recession, despite facing higher energy bills due to increased time spent at home.


During an economic crisis, consumers facing the threat of unemployment or lower wages may be even more motivated to look for the cheapest options when it comes to buying appliances.

While energy-efficient appliances often tend to be cheaper across their lifetime (as they have lower running costs), consumers can sometimes struggle to calculate the lifecycle costs of an appliance, meaning purchasing decisions are often made based on the purchase price alone, a well-known barrier to increasing energy efficiency.

Appliance labels can help overcome this barrier by providing consumers with information on the energy use of appliances, which is crucial in calculating lifetime costs. The energy usage information on appliances labels is becoming more accurate, as it is increasingly based on testing procedures that are more representative of real behaviour.

However, even if consumers have neither access to information nor a desire to calculate lifecycle costs, evidence from Southeast Asia shows that some energy-efficient appliances can be cheaper on purchase price alone. For example, in Viet Nam, there are several models of air conditioner available with a seasonal performance factor of 5 or over that are well below the average purchase price of USD 5304.

Lifecycle cost versus efficiency of air conditioners by technology in Viet Nam, 2019

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Purchase price versus efficiency of air conditioners by technology in Viet Nam, 2019

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Despite the recent surge in appliance purchases, however, if the economic crisis deepens appliance replacement rates are likely to slow in the next one to two years, as economic uncertainty and lower incomes discourage non-essential purchases. Consumers would be likely to hold onto ageing, less efficient appliances for longer. Continuing low energy prices could also hold people back from seeking to increase energy efficiency in response to higher household energy consumption from spending more time at home.

Stimulus policies will also play an important role. Policies that encourage appliance purchases directly (such as appliance recycling programmes) or by providing, for example, lower-income households with cash incentives, are likely to result in higher appliance turnover rates. However, stimulus policies specifically targeting appliance efficiency are yet to be announced (see Tracking Policy Responses to the Crisis).


Prolonged virus outbreaks and a slow economic recovery could significantly dampen consumer confidence and incomes (particularly for low-income households), curbing purchases of appliances, air conditioners, cars and other items.

For example, people will buy fewer new, additional refrigerators if consumer confidence falls. Consumers will also delay the replacement of existing ones, which has implications for energy demand as new refrigerators can be around twice as efficient as the models they replace. IEA modelling of global refrigerator stocks shows that a 10% fall in refrigerator sales in 2021 would have two main energy-related effects:

  • fewer purchases of new additional appliances, thus lowering electricity demand. Globally this effect would be around 1.4 TWh in 2021.
  • a reduction in the replacement rate of existing older, less efficient appliances with more efficient new ones, which will raise electricity consumption. In 2021, this effect would be around 1.2 TWh.

The net impact would be a minor decrease in demand (0.2 TWh) but at a cost of lower economic growth and fewer energy services (due to the reduction in people obtaining new additional appliances). This shows that policy makers seeking a more sustainable path to recovery should design policies to increase replacements of inefficient appliances with the most efficient models available. Doing so could stimulate economic growth, increase access to energy services and improve the efficiency of energy services all at once.

References
  1. Worldwide Google Trends searches for the topics of “Netflix” and “Amazon Prime Video”.

  2. Sales data provided by the White Goods Manufacturers’ Association of Turkey (TURKBESD).

  3. Sales data provided by the White Goods Manufacturers’ Association of Turkey (TURKBESD).

  4. Purchase prices normalised to 12,000 BTU/h.

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