The problem is cooking

“There is an urgent need for development agendas to recognize the fundamental role that household energy plays in improving child and maternal health and fostering economic and social development.” Torres-Duque et al, 2008

Globally there has been a huge investment for more than 30 years to find a way forward. There now seem to be a myriad of possible solutions, which fall into three broad categories:

  • transition to higher grade fuels (e.g. from biomass to gas)
  • improved efficiency (e.g. improved cook stoves for biomass)
  • solar cookers (that have varying degrees of uptake and success).

Taking these in reverse order, solar cookers have been constrained by the timing of the cooking (to coincide with the sun) and the cultural style of cooking – they work well where baking is the dominant form, but less so where other forms of cooking are the norm.

A lot of work has been done on improving biomass based stoves, including forced air, gasifiers, alternative fuels, etc. Improved cook stoves represent a promising alternative, although so far success has often been limited by  designs that are unsuitable for local customs, ineffective financing, poor distribution channels, or insufficient social marketing.

An alternative strategy is to ‘upgrade’ the fuel – to move up the energy ladder. Use of mains electricity has been adopted where it is affordable and has a measure of reliability. It is common in urban slum dwellings to find a simple electric hob or ring. However, while electric stoves are smokeless at the point of use and do not produce any emissions within a household, the actual contribution to the global environment will depend on how the mains electricity is being generated. Poor households have varying degrees of access to mains electricity, depending often on illegal connections that cannot draw too much power; supplies are also subject to load shedding and power outages implemented by the utility. As a result it is common to find kerosene and LPG gas stoves in slum areas, which, while cleaner than biomass, pose significant risks associated with fire and fumes, and also tend to be relatively expensive.

What if we could use solar cells to charge a battery during the day, and cook with it during the night, on a fairly standard cooking ring? This may not be a solution for the bottom billion, but it would perhaps address the needs of the 2 billion rising middle and upper poor.

Source: Torres-Duque, Carlos, et al.(2008), “Biomass fuels and respiratory diseases a review of the evidence.” Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society 5.5, 577-590

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