With their most dramatic success in Kenya and other East African countries, off-grid solar home systems are expanding rapidly, reaching more consumers and extending beyond basic lighting and mobile-phone charging, now even offering bundles with solar-powered flat-screen televisions. Costs continue to drop precipitously, and, according to Beyond Fire, a new report released at the end of May, the next new horizon may be in the kitchen, with solar-energy-powered cooking.
No, this is not "solar cooking" using heat generated from the sun´s rays (which only works when the sun is shining). The report focuses on the potential for electric cookers that are efficient enough to be powered from a solar home system.
At present, more than 3 billion peoples (40% of the world´s population) still rely on solid fuels for heating and cooking. If (or when)this new development takes off, it could save hundreds of thousands of lives lost to indoor pollution from open fires. It could also save time lost in gathering fuel for millions of women in rural Africa and Asia, as well as slowing deforestation and its impact on the climate crisis.
In 2010, the Clean Cooking Alliance of donors and non-governmental organizations was formed to address this issue. But progress has been limited. The priority to date has been improved cook-stoves using biogas or biomass. But technical development in this field is slow, and the initial cost for a home or community biogas plant using animal waste is high. With these obstacles, the familiarity and low-cost of cooking with wood and charcoal still make it the preference, even as women have to go farther to gather supplies.
Shifting to cooking with solar-electricity-powered slow-cookers or pressure-cookers will face the same issue of familiarity as current efforts. Proposed solutions must be adapted to attract consumers with quality as well as low price. But technological advance in this area is more rapid. The authors of the Beyond Fire report anticipate that the willingness of rural consumers to adopt new technology, demonstrated with mobile phones, home solar, and pay- as-you-go financing, may also kick in for e-cooking once the price is low enough and the cookers sufficiently matched to consumer preferences.
I spoke with Toby Couture, one of the co-authors of the report, who runs E3 Analytics, an energy consultancy based in Berlin (https://www.e3analytics.eu/). Although the WhatsApp conversation was not recorded, and is not quoted directly here, his additional explanations were very helpful in understanding the report and its implications.
Among other comments, he noted that the report is already getting a high level of interest from donors and others involved in promoting clean cooking, and that initiatives for small-scale field tests of such systems are well under way. One key factor, he stressed, would be whether any of the key players in financing off-grid solar energy decide to make major investments, adding such an option to their rapidly growing markets for larger-scale as well as basic home solar systems.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the executive summary and other selected excerpts from the 83-page report, which is replete with tables and graphs illustrating the technical analyses presented.
The full report is available at https://www.worldfuturecouncil.org/beyond-fire-report-launch/
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on climate and the environment, visit http://www.africafocus.org/intro-env.php
For a case study of one prototype high-efficiency cooker tested in Bangladesh, see "Solar e-Cooking: A Proposition for Solar Home System Integrated Clean Cooking," Energies, 27 October 2018 https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/11/11/2933/htm
Additional background on current efforts to promote a transition away from wood and charcoal to somewhat cleaner alternatives is available at the following links:
Clean Cooking Alliance - wide range of relevant background sources https://www.cleancookingalliance.org/resources/566.html
Two critical analyses about clean cooking initiatives to date appeared in the Washington Post in 2015 and on Quartz in 2018.
Beyond Fire: How to Achieve Electric Cooking
World Future Council
May 29, 2019
[Excerpts only: full report, with footnotes, references, tables, and graphs, is available at:
Approximately 40% of the global population still cook with either wood, dung, coal, or charcoal to feed themselves or their families, placing tremendous strain on the surrounding environment and on human health.
* While roughly 1.1 Billion people still lack access to electricity worldwide (IEA 2017), almost three times that amount (or roughly 3.06 Billion) still rely on solid fuels for heating and cooking. This is likely to put significant additional strain on already stressed forest resources in many parts of the world.
* On current trends, SEforAll [Sustainable Energy for All] estimates that by 2030, as many as 2.3 Billion people worldwide will still lack access to clean cooking technologies due to a combination of insufficient investment in clean cooking solutions and ongoing population growth.
*In several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the use of wood and charcoal represents over 90% of total final energy consumption.
* Unsustainable firewood and charcoal use is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in many countries and significantly exacerbates the negative effects of global climate change. Burning firewood and charcoal is closely linked to both forest degradation as well as to deforestation, while increasing a region's exposure to a host of other environmental risks such as soil loss, desertification, loss of biodiversity, and water scarcity.
In rural Africa, such as in this photo from South Africa, women most often have the burden of gathering fuel for cooking. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
* Reliance on such traditional fuels for cooking is directly linked to an estimated 4 million premature deaths around the world, mostly of women and children, due to high levels of indoor air pollution.
* There is an estimated USD $123 Billion in annual costs to human health, to the environment, and to local economies caused by the use of solid fuels like wood and charcoal for cooking.
* The availability and affordability of both firewood and charcoal are likely to emerge as major problems in the coming decades for many countries around the world as the associated pressures from climate change, timber harvesting, and industrial agriculture combine to accelerate the rate of forest loss.
Transitioning to more sustainable forms of cooking in regions like sub-Saharan Africa therefore remains a pressing global issue. As these few facts highlight, finding sustainable alternatives to cooking is not only an environmental imperative; it is critical for improving human health, for poverty reduction, as well as for advancing economic opportunity in the world's poorest and most under-privileged regions. And yet, in contrast to other major global issues, the issue of cooking rarely figures at the top of the policy agenda. Despite the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to "ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all," the volume of finance being allocated to the sector is in fact declining. This is partly why a growing number of leading international organizations are urging donors and investors to allocate more time and resources to achieving sustainable cooking sector.
Notably, the Green Climate Fund, in partnership with the World Bank and the GIZ, has made substantial investments in clean cooking solutions, including in Bangladesh, where a total of USD $82.2 Million (EUR 73.3 Million) has been committed over a 3.5 year period, as well as in Kenya and Senegal, where a total of USD $26.7 Million (EUR 23.8 Million) has been committed over a period of 4 years.
Both of these initiatives are a sign that while the total funding commitments being allocated to support the transition to sustainable cooking remain a fraction of what is needed, awareness is growing of the urgency of the challenge.
Significant declines in the cost of renewable energy technologies (namely solar PV modules, inverters and battery systems) as well as progress in mini-grid and storage technologies is beginning to make solar the most cost-effective source of new electricity supply in many regions of the world, most notably in rural and remote regions . This is particularly the case in much of sub-Saharan Africa, where solar resources are abundant, and the costs of either diesel systems or of expanding existing transmission and distribution infra- structure is often prohibitive.
While attention on improving the sustainability of the cooking sector has begun to increase in recent years, much of the effort to tackle the challenge of sustainable cooking in Asia, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be focused on improving conventional cook stove technologies, promoting the use of pellets from either wood products or agricultural wastes, shifting to LPG [liquefied petroleum gas, or propane], as well as the overall efficiency of charcoal production.
Even though these improvements are certainly needed, continuing to further entrench the reliance on combustible fuels cannot be long- term sustainable solution to the challenge of cooking.
Achieving sustainable cooking is one of the great challenges of our time. An estimated 4 million premature deaths are caused each year by indoor air pollution caused by existing cooking practices still widespread in many parts of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa (WHO 2018). In Africa alone, the African Development Bank (AfDB) estimates that over 600,000 deaths per year are caused by existing cooking practices, the majority of which are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. nor a truly sustainable solution to the challenge of cooking.
The difficulty of finding cost-effective substitutes for traditional cooking fuels, most notably wood and charcoal, is made even more challenging by a range of cultural, behavioral and other factors that hinder the adoption of alternatives. Hundreds of millions of citizens worldwide have rarely if ever known any other form of cooking than traditional firewood and charcoal: this makes the adoption of alternatives a slow and often piecemeal process.
Over the past three decades, the majority of the focus in the cooking sector in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa has been on promoting improved cook stove technologies rather than on a fundamental transition of the underlying energy sources or fuels being used; this can be seen in the many of the national energy strategies recently developed, notably in sub-Saharan Africa . While the promotion of more efficient cookstoves remains an important interim solution and has delivered impressive results in certain countries, this report argues that focusing on improved cookstoves is neither a truly long-term nor a truly sustainable solution to the challenge of cooking.
In light of these various interrelated challenges, this second edition of the Beyond Fire report sets out to build on the report's first edition, which was originally published in 2016. This revised edition draws on new data and analysis to provide an update on how the economics of cooking with electricity in a stand-alone solar home system (SHS) as well as in a mini-grid context have evolved since then.
Clearly, overcoming the economic cost barrier is only part of the challenge: sustainable cooking technologies must be well adapted to individual communities' way of life, and must be able to be easily integrated with prevailing cooking habits . This means that the transition to other fuel types, whether electricity or otherwise, is likely to be a gradual process, underscoring the need to increase efforts to accelerate this transition now. Raising awareness of the alternatives, and better adapting solutions to people's actual behaviors and cooking preferences, is critical.
In order to provide a comprehensive comparison of existing cooking options and of alternative cooking pathways, this report calculates the costs range for cooking with various different appliances and presents them in hanging bar charts in order to provide a snapshot of their relative cost- competitiveness. As can be seen, the costs of cooking with electricity both in mini-grid contexts and via solar home systems is now well within the range of cost competitiveness of other cooking alternatives, a significant improvement from three years ago when the first edition was published. Also, similar to the first edition, this report finds that biogas-based cooking remains an economically attractive option, particularly for households with livestock or other suitable feedstocks.
A key improvement of this revised edition is that it sheds light on the tremendous cost-saving potential of using higher efficiency cooking appliances, in particular appliances like slow cookers and pressure cookers:
* Over a one-hour cooking period, a pressure cooker uses approximately one quarter (1/4) of the electricity of an electric hot plate.
* Over a 4-hour cooking period, the gains increase further: a pressure cooker is twice as efficient as a slow cooker, six (6) times as efficient as an induction stove, and fully seven (7) times as efficient as an electric hot plate.
* In terms of costs, there is currently a 3-to-4-fold cost differential between a solar home system dimensioned for use with high-efficiency cooking appliances versus one that is dimensioned for use either with hotplates or induction stoves.
Given the limited financial resources available to most households currently cooking with firewood and charcoal, it is therefore critical to focus on deploying high-efficiency end-use appliances, despite their slightly higher upfront cost, as the system-level cost savings pay for themselves multiple times over.
In light of these substantial cost savings, using high-efficiency end-use appliances has the potential to lead to a similar "inflection point" as the emergence of LED lighting technologies on the off-grid solar sector. The figure below provides a summary of current cost ranges, in EUR/GJ, of the various cooking options considered within the report.
There are two main reasons why the revised cost analysis has seen such a significant improvement in the economic viability of electricity-based options:
1. First, the cost of both solar modules and batteries has come down significantly; since early 2016, the costs of solar and storage systems have come down by between 30-50%, and continue to decline as markets scale-up and technologies improve;
In Kenya, M-Kopa and other companies now sell home solar systems that include a flat-panel TV as well as lights, outlets for charging mobile phones, and a radio. Credit: M-Kopa.
2. Second, this analysis applies an updated methodology: in particular, it moves away from the 1 GJ per person per year benchmark in terms of final energy use, and models much more precisely the actual electricity consumption of different end-use appliances. Instead of needing 308 - 397kWh per person per year of electricity, as assumed in the first edition, this revised analysis finds that the per person electricity consumption when using a higher efficiency slow cooker or pressure cooker ranges from 61 - 131kWh. Such energy efficiency savings make it possible to significantly reduce the overall size (and cost) of both the solar panels and the battery bank required to enable electric cooking.
These two changes recast the economics of cooking in a new and far more competitive light than the first edition. One key finding that emerges from this updated cost analysis is that cooking with electricity (whether with solar home systems or in a mini-grid context) using high-efficiency appliances can even make cooking cheaper than what many households currently spend on firewood and charcoal. The World Bank's bottom-up research from across Sub- Saharan Africa indicate that households spend on average between EUR 1 - EUR 31/month on cooking fuels (World Bank 2014).
With slow cookers and pressure cookers enabling household cooking costs of between EUR 15 and 21/month for SHS and between EUR 3.56 - 9.53/month for mini-grids, the economics of cooking with high efficiency cooking appliances are becoming increasingly compelling.
3.2. Barriers to Transition
There are many crucial challenges that continue to limit the uptake of new and more sustainable cooking technologies.
* A number of cultural and behavioral barriers linked to cooking habits, traditions, and taste preferences;
* High upfront cost of alternatives, including both the cooking appliances themselves (the stoves or ovens) and the costs of procuring the energy required to run them (i.e. paying for the gas, the electricity, or the pay-as-you-go plan);
* The availability in many regions of zero- cost fuel wood, gathered by residents directly from the surrounding environment, which hampers the adoption of alternatives and impedes substitution; it is estimated that only some 50% of households in Sub-Saharan Africa pay something for their cooking fuels, with the remaining 50% gathering firewood directly from the surrounding area;
* The risk of reversion, which occurs when residents revert to traditional cooking technologies even though cleaner options are available, typically due to cost, preference, or other factors;
* Low income levels, which make it difficult to finance and support the market uptake of more sustainable solutions, particularly for lower income residents, or those at the bottom-of- the-pyramid ;
* Lack of familiarity with (and occasionally even resistance to) the use of new technologies ;
* The remoteness of many regions reliant on wood and wood-based fuels for cooking, which increases the cost and logistical challenges of delivering interventions.
As the above list highlights, the barriers facing the uptake and diffusion of more sustainable cooking technologies are significant and in many cases, difficult to over- come. Foremost among these barriers are cultural and behavioral factors: cooking choices, taste preferences and behaviors are deeply tradition-based and location-specific, making it difficult to drive large-scale substitution in the market, while also limiting the potential scalability of alternatives. Overcoming both the cultural barriers as well as the underlying economic barriers of cooking in developing countries presents a formidable challenge. Cooking is deeply embedded in people's way of life, and is woven into the very fabric of communities, which means that communities are likely to remain more resistant to change than they might be with other innovations such as the advent of mobile technologies. Thus, any effort to scale-up alternative cooking solutions needs to be based on a sound analysis of what actually drives the adoption and diffusion of new technologies. Behaviors often run deep and the cultural and other social factors surrounding the question of cooking make this uniquely so with sustainable cooking.
A further challenge relates to the level of awareness of cleaner cooking alternatives, including in particular of the possibility of adopting electric-based cooking solutions: a number of high-profile reports recently published on the clean cooking sector scarcely discuss cooking with electricity at all, focusing instead on improved cook-stoves, LPG, and other options.
The prevailing consensus among those working in the clean cooking sector emerges as one of the greatest barriers: electric cooking options are widely thought to require a national grid, and are therefore not believed to be a viable option for rural and remote regions, which is where most households reliant on firewood and charcoal for cooking typically live. In such regions, grid infrastructure often does not exist, income levels typically are much lower, and power generation costs are often higher, making electricity use at the scale required for cooking purposes impractical, if not prohibitive, for most households. A further challenge is that even in regions that do have access to the national grid, power supply is unreliable, particularly in the evening hours when most households do most of their cooking.
All of these factors, combined with the many cultural and behavioral barriers to electric-based cooking, combined with the lack of awareness of alternatives, have led many to argue that cooking with electricity is not viable, especially in rural and remote regions.
Recent examples of rapid adoption of new communication tools such as smart phones in areas where not even landline phones existed suggests the transition to the wide- spread adoption of new technologies can be quite rapid, provided the right conditions are in place. Key among these conditions are strong customer demand, the presence of significant and tangible benefits over alternatives, and the product being available at an affordable cost. The question of cost is important in two different senses: both the upfront cost, as well as the ongoing, usage-related cost.
Beyond Fire: 6 Steps to Achieve Sustainable Cooking
1. Governments need to set clear goals to transition away from firewood and charcoal. The current energy strategies being developed by national governments and donor community for most of Africa and Asia are not doing enough to drive a meaningful transition toward sustainable cooking solutions. Current strategies still largely focus on improved cookstoves and the build-out of LPG infrastructure, failing to recognize the tremendous potential of alternative cooking solutions such as renewable electricity. By focusing largely on improved cookstoves, the international community might contribute to further entrenching technological path dependencies which might be a barrier for the decarbonization of the cooking sector in the long-run. In order to make meaningful progress toward sustainable cooking, governments and donors will need to commit to far more ambitious goals, including clear strategies, more research on behavioral, cultural, and willingness- to-pay issues, as well as financing resources.
2. Stakeholders spanning governments, foundations, donors, investors and others involved in financing projects in the cooking sector need to allocate more resources to support the availability of pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) contracts. Such contracts convert the high upfront cost of investments into smaller, more affordable payments that can be made on a regular basis (e.g. monthly or bi-monthly). A greater focus on providing affordable consumer finance, including more local currency financing and longer loan tenors, is critical to support the transition toward sustainable cooking.
3. Governments should introduce policies and incentives to reduce upfront costs. This can involve targeted grants to encourage adoption and foster economies of scale; it can also involve other policies to help bridge the cost gap, such as "feebates" (e.g. additional fees on certain items such as air conditioning units or automobiles that are allocated to support rebates on other technologies, in this case, sustainable cooking technologies); a further approach might involve the targeted use of tax or duty exemptions, such as those frequently offered on solar PV components, or on high-efficiency cooking appliances such as electric pressure cookers. These measures may be combined with other legal and regulatory measures, such as restrictions on charcoal use and distribution.
4. Governments should undertake root and-branch reform of fossil fuel subsidies, which often benefit middle and upper- income residents, and re-allocate them to support a rapid scale-up in sustainable cooking technologies. In contrast to existing fossil fuel subsidies around the world, which tend primarily to benefit citizens with medium to high income levels, targeted support for sustainable cooking technologies tend, by default, to support lower income households. Re-allocating fossil fuel subsidies to accelerate the transition toward sustainable cooking would bring massive and lasting benefits to sustainable development, and would contribute significantly to re-balancing the major inequities that continue to persist between urban and rural regions. Reforming fossil fuel subsidies and re-allocating the proceeds to support sustainable cooking is perhaps one of the single most impactful steps that governments around the world can take to accelerate the transition.
5. Governments and donors around the world need to fund a greater range of R&D projects, including projects to demonstrate the viability of sustainable cooking solutions. Such initiatives could focus specifically on providing further analysis of cooking with different electric appliances such as slow cookers, pressure cookers and even infrared cookers, analysis of the behavioral and cultural acceptance of slow cookers and pressure cookers, as well as to support the scale-up of new business models in the cooking sector. These kinds of projects can be extremely valuable in order to gather cost and performance data, analyze behavioral and other challenges, while driving further technological innovation and cost reduction. Moreover, strategically supporting the emergence of new business models can help give rise to replicable, scalable projects at various points of the cooking value-chain. Skepticism of alternative cooking solutions remains high, not least among end- users: one of the best ways to overcome this is first to demonstrate their viability, and then to help drive technological improvement and cost reduction by expanding the market, and improving the mechanisms of delivery.
6. International climate finance should be mobilized to play a far greater and more direct role in supporting the transition to sustainable cooking, including through innovative mechanisms such as the Green Climate Fund and the wider use of climate bonds. Scaling up sustainable cooking represents one of the most significant opportunities worldwide to generate major climate change mitigation and adaptation "win-wins": reducing reliance on traditional fuels such as firewood and charcoal, improving human health, while helping to preserve forest ecosystems and improve (or maintain) overall ecosystem resilience. New financing mechanisms such as climate bonds could significantly expand the volume of capital flowing to the sector, and yield wide-ranging benefits for both local citizens and the global climate.
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