Three obstinate questions of energy access

Vishwa Amatya

October 9th, 2016

This blog is based on a note prepared for a Panel at a South Asian Regional Workshop held in Kathmandu funded by DfID and executed jointly by the University of Berkeley and Oxford Policy Management.

1. What is the most pervasive form of energy poverty?

IMG_2528Understanding energy poverty or lack of energy access, as I see, needs understanding of energy access in three spheres of energy needs for human society to prosper in a sustained way.

These three spheres are:

i) Energy for household uses (includes energy for cooking, lighting and other uses)

ii) Energy for productive activity of a household to make living in an efficient and humanly manner

iii) Energy for making community services and activities more effective. Practical Action has been advocating this framework through its annual publication by name, ‘Poor People’s Energy Outlook’

If we further analyse these energy requirements, they can be lumped together based on application into energy for thermal applications including cooking, electrical energy for light and appliance use, and sporadically mechanical energy, especially in rural areas for various activities (mainly productive use applications, water mills for agro-processing are an example).

In terms of quantity (energy units) most demand arises for thermal applications of which cooking is the major activity in developing countries, partly contributed also by lower conversion and utilisation efficiency. It is met mainly through the use of solid biomass fuel (mostly non-commercial wood-fuel, occasionally agricultural residues and dried animal dung) in the developing world and some form of commercialised fossil-fuel (kerosene, liquefied petroleum gas – LPG).

The use of electricity in cooking is very limited. The portion of wood-fuel in the total supply (wood-fire, electricity and fossil-fuel) is progressively more for households located in rural areas, which consequently have more access to forests for firewood. When firewood (or wood-fuel)is collected rather than purchased and a lack of rural employment co-exist side-by-side, there is very little incentive to improve efficiency. Consequently, the technology used for this purpose (solid biomass stoves) is rudimentary, inconvenient and unsafe. Thus, the energy poverty is very much represented by unsafe and unclean way of cooking. The urban poor also face similar problems where they resort to various ways of cooking that are unsafe and unclean.

The most pervasive form of energy poverty is the lack of access to clean and safe methods of cooking.

2. Are South Asian households likely to gain access to energy for cooking through electric stoves?

Compared to other alternatives, electricity is costly, not accessible everywhere and reliability is an issue. The evidences show that the equation is more of LPG/kerosene versus wood-fuel in many situations. The trend of penetration of LPG stoves to substitute wood-fuel and kerosene is seen to be very strong and verifiable with import figures of LPG. The intensity of electricity use for cooking is very low and limited within affluent households. Although newer and more efficient electric technologies like induction cooking stoves are making a strong market entry, it will still take a long time to replace fossil-fuel based cooking solutions. The question of substituting wood-fuel with commercial fuel is more one of availability of time to collect (notion of free/near free wood-fuel) as against affordability of poor rural households.

It is, therefore, very unlikely that electricity will replace current methods and trends of cooking solution with current supply characteristics and growth trend in South Asia. There may be some exceptions where electricity supply characteristic is an anomaly where electricity is highly subsidised.

3. What additional interventions will be required to promote alternative cooking technologies?

A better way with improved stove and smoke-hood. we call it hood-stove

A better way with improved stove and smoke-hood. we call it hood-stove

Promoting alternative cooking technologies (alternative to wood-fuel with inefficient device) will have to be dealt in progressive stages. After all wood-fuel use for cooking is not at all a bad thing if it is sustainably harvested and used with a highly efficient device.

This can start from replacing the current dominant traditional stove (with less than 10% efficiency) with more and more convenient, safe and efficient stoves. Sustainable Energy for All’s multi-tier framework provides five stages of development of cooking energy access with various forms of energy and devices. According to which, energy like electricity and other commercial forms of energy (biogas, LPG, electricity, natural gas, BLEN) and manufactured stoves appear at tbe higher tier and use of biomass in a homemade inefficient stove appears at the lowest end.

To climb the tier, interventions will be inevitable to make it rapid. If we are looking for a long term solution, interventions have to come from outside and cannot be politically popular, limited, free distribution of stoves, that is for sure.

The proper market development of stoves where people find their roles as market actors is important for large-scale change to happen. With a proper market system development, an efficient supply chain and after sales service can be established that are profitable and sustainable.

The necessary interventions to make it happen could be:

  • There may be projects with a limited role of subsidy to kick-start the market but must have a clear exit strategy 
  • Support for market system development with capacity development for market actors
  • Ensure that lack of finance does not hinder the market growth
  • Another important intervention should be geared towards increasing affordability and reducing the availability of free time to make seem wood-fuel a free resource.
  • With proper market development of stoves people will find their roles as market actors.  This is important for large-scale change to happen.

2 responses to “Three obstinate questions of energy access”

  1. Guillermo Tirado Says:

    Good article. A question, what means: “…geared towards increasing people’s affordability and reducing availability of free time to make seem wood-fuel a free resource”?. Is it, learning about the environmental cost of wood fuel?

  2. Vishwa Says:

    Dear Guillermo,

    You correctly interpreted that the wood-fuel is still a free commodity at the cost of time spent to collect in most of the remote rural areas.
    -Vishwa
    11 Oct 2016

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