Air conditioning units on the roof of a house, Casablanca

Project Details

Country Programme
Efficient & Productive Use
Lucas Davis
Sierra Leone
Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley
Lucas Davis Haas business school UCB

Lucas Davis

Principal Investigator

Electricity and air conditioning in Sierra Leone


Background, challenges and context 

Air conditioning brings relief on hot days, makes people more comfortable, increases productivity, and, during extreme heat, can even make the difference between life and death. However, it is a luxury which, for the moment, is mostly available to the relatively wealthy.  

Sierra Leone currently has low adoption of air conditioning (less than one per cent in 2011) and, indeed, only 20 per cent electrification, but, as incomes increase, this will change rapidly – potentially raising severe concerns about grid reliability.  

Air conditioners consume vast amounts of electricity (a typical unit uses 20 times as much electricity as a ceiling fan and 100 times as much as an LED lightbulb), so their adoption can dramatically change a household’s electricity consumption profile. The entire electricity system in Sierra Leone has a capacity of only 240MW, and the grid already suffers from frequent blackouts. It would take just a small increase in air conditioning adoption to outstrip supply during high-demand hours, exacerbating reliability issues.  

To meet increased demand without blackouts, large economic investments in electricity generation and transmission infrastructure will be required – and understanding where and when is crucial if investments are to be made efficiently.  

Air conditioning also raises major environmental challenges. The energy efficiency of air conditioners currently for sale around the world varies significantly – some of the worst-performing products consume more than twice as much electricity per unit output. However, minimum energy efficiency standards work, in large part, by removing the most energy-inefficient air conditioners from the market, but these are also the cheapest units – thus creating a trade-off between efficiency and equity. 

In addition, the refrigerants used in air conditioners are potent greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Therefore, understanding the pace of growth in air conditioner sales is crucial in terms of the recent Kigali Agreement, which seeks to significantly reduce the use of HFCs.  

Despite the enormous air conditioning potential in Sierra Leone and other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as South Asia, and the large potential economic and environmental impacts that increased use may have, there is little direct empirical evidence on this topic, or analytical modelling of potential policy impacts.  

Little work has been carried out to estimate how air conditioner adoption increases as household incomes rise, and how it rises differentially across climates of differing temperatures, and there is limited reliable information about where and when air conditioning adoption will occur. There is also a lack of reliable research on the impact of air conditioning adoption on the environment, and little is known about how minimum energy efficiency standards, energy price reform, and other policy interventions could mitigate these impacts, by, for example, encouraging the adoption of high-efficiency equipment and/or air conditioning alternatives like evaporative cooling, cool roofs, and passive cooling systems.   


Research overview and objectives   

This project aims to fill several important knowledge gaps, including a lack of data, while generating predictions about future environmental impacts under different policy scenarios. The research team is focusing on Sierra Leone, where evidence is particularly scant, but will also include all EEG priority countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. 

The project team will firstly develop new measures of air conditioning potential, with the aim of assembling and disseminating the most comprehensive dataset ever compiled on air conditioning in the selected countries.  

The team will perform a thorough inventory of available household microdata on air conditioning. Sources identified include Sierra Leone’s Integrated Household Survey, which was carried out with assistance from the World Bank, and CLASP, a non-profit organisation focused on making appliances more energy efficient with experience in designing and implementing household-level energy and demographic surveys.  

The household-level microdata will be combined with other data, including temperature, population, income, geographic, and future energy consumption information, along with estimates/forecasts.  

Members of the Berkeley research team together with Innovations for Poverty Action Sierra Leone (IPA-SL) will conduct focus groups with households, interview government and electricity utility officials, and obtain and review official documents regarding energy policies.   

The team will be able to describe empirically the relationship between income, temperature, and air conditioner adoption in Sierra Leone and other EEG priority countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The potential impact for minimum efficiency standards, electricity tariff design, and related policies will be assessed. In addition, the team will project energy consumption and environmental impacts out to 2030 and beyond for a variety of alternative policies.  

This research will represent a significant advance in academic literature. It will provide tools and evidence that can be used directly as the basis for policy development, and the team anticipates that other researchers will use its data to continue to drive the air conditioning agenda forward.  


Local partners  

Innovations for Poverty Action Sierra Leone (IPA-SL)  

CLASP, formerly known as the Collaborative Labelling and Appliance Standards Program