Tuesday, July 14, 2015

MUSINGS FROM PRIYADARSHINI KARVE: A Perspective on Cooking Energy [Part 2]

Last week I gave some calculations about how much expenditure is incurred for daily household cooking by users of LPG and other fuels, as a comparison. The numbers clearly show that even without subsidy, LPG is still the most economical AND convenient option. So why is it not the main cooking fuel in India?

LPG as well as kerosene were introduced as household cooking fuels in India in 1950s. At that time everyone cooked on solid biomass fuels. Typically, the rural households used firewood, either collected, or harvested from own farms, or purchased, and the urban households used charcoal and firewood, both purchased. There was a lot of resistance to fossil fuels, but the convenience of both kerosene and LPG soon overcame the cultural barriers. Most of the urban middle and high income households shifted to LPG, whereas urban poor shifted primarily to kerosene. The rural population just added LPG and kerosene as additional options, but did not totally give up on firewood. Only those people who could not cross the economical barrier, continued to use the traditional fuels, exclusively. This population is however substantially large - about 30% urban households and nearly 85% rural households are using solid biomass fuels for cooking (based on 2011 census data and other sources).  

The push for liquid and gaseous fossil fuels for cooking came from two main considerations - one, to reduce the pressure on forests to supply firewood and charcoal for cooking, and two, to reduce the drudgery and health impacts suffered by women cooking on solid biomass fuels. Over the years however, a number of changes have come in in the usage patterns. 

Firstly the richer households now cook on both LPG and electricity, and recently the option of piped natural gas has also become available in some cities. 

Kerosene as a cooking fuel is now an increasingly expensive option in both urban and rural areas as other uses are being found for kerosene. In places where electricity is not available or is unreliable, whatever kerosene that a household can get hold of, is used for lighting. Almost everywhere, as the price of petrol has gone up, kerosene has also been used for adulteration! As a result, many poor households have been forced to fall back on firewood, as the kerosene supply through the public distribution system has become unreliable.  

The poor who could not afford either LPG or kerosene before are still unable to do so, and therefore other options such as gobar gas and smokeless chulhas have been promoted for them. However, gobar gas (biogas from cattle dung) is not a universally applicable solution for a number of reasons, and so called 'smokeless' chulhas are never totally smokeless. Stoves have been designed that burn solid biomass fuels without high levels of pollution, but this is often achieved at the expense of user friendliness. In any case, these devices too are expensive, and for a variety of cultural, social and economic reasons, there is reluctance on part of the poor households, to invest in a clean cook stove. 

The real problem for the poor or those with hand to mouth existence is that they do not always have the total amount that is required for buying a whole LPG cylinder, either 14.2 kg or even smaller capacity. If somehow it becomes possible for people to pay for fuel as per their daily requirement (INR 20 at a time), more people will be easily able to afford LPG. If the number of households with access to LPG can increase to 75-80% in the total population, we would certainly have made great strides into reducing the health impacts from cooking energy source. It is uncertain whether this will reduce the pressure on forests, though, as the biggest cause of deforestation is not poor people's need for cooking fuel, but is rich people's need for more land for urbanisation and industrialisation. 

I believe that there are technologically feasible ways of overcoming the economic barrier to provide more widespread access to LPG or any other gaseous fossil fuel as household cooking fuel. For example, if cooking gas is supplied by pipe, and the gas flow can be controlled with the help of pre-paid coupons (similar to pre-paid cellphone usage), a household can actually buy the gas daily decided either by the daily need or by the money in hand on a daily basis, or a combination of both considerations. 

I do not think however that anyone is working on any such sustainable solutions. 

Furthermore, in all this, the issue of LPG (and kerosene) being a fossil fuel (therefore essentially non-renewable and non-sustainable) remains unaddressed. The only sustainable substitute is to somehow convert the solid biomass as available into a gaseous form. A number of technologies are available, but none of these have become commercially feasible, particularly in the context of substituting LPG as household cooking fuel. Unfortunately, this is another area where not much innovative thinking has happened over the years, and there is almost no policy support for the few realistic technologies that do already exist. 

At Samuchit Enviro Tech, we are trying some novel approaches for developing cooking energy systems that would provide the same or similar 'quality of energy service' as LPG, but using solid and liquid biomass 'waste' as starting materials. We welcome everyone willing to participate in this process, on a voluntary basis. 

Priyadarshini Karve
Samuchit Enviro Tech


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