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“eMobility - threat or support to eCooking?”

5th January 2023

By Dr Simon Batchelor (Gamos Ltd.; Loughborough University). (With contributions from Prof Matthew Leach)

Will the advent of eBikes in Africa and South Asia strengthen and expand the case for eCooking or could it override and undermine the argument for eCooking?

I recently went to the OFF-GRID EXPO OEC 2022, organised by the Alliance for Rural Electrification.  At the conference there were sessions on solar cooling, pumping and mobility (as well as gender and finance).  No sessions on eCooking although of course my own talk focused on that, but that was last session of the conference and I think there were about 7 people in the room.  Not sure how many were online.  Solar Bakery presented their project, but they are basically a special small business involving productive use of solar energy, not what we might consider as eCooking for the masses. 

I was struck at how eMobility had transitioned from an idea to local assembly and production, and seemed to have fairly solid business models underpinning it.  UNIDO launched their new report on emobility, and bikes made or utilised in Africa were demonstrated at the conference (e.g. Anywhere, Asantys Systems, Eco Safari, Mobility for Africa).  At the same time, Ed Brown and Jon Leary in Kenya were invited to visit Arc Ride, and were sending me pictures on WhatsApp of locally made eBikes.  We continue to support Kachione in Malawi, and while our support is focused on eCooking, Kachione have locally assembled three wheeled ‘eTukTuk’ to carry goods to market as part of their system approach to solar shops and in response to what the people felt was needed (alongside solar pumping and even solar tilling).

So, eMobility seems to have had a surge of progress in the last 18 months in Africa and South Asia, which is great for the planet.  But is it great for eCooking?

When MECS was designed, our then DFID ‘responsible owner’ was actually an infrastructure advisor with considerable transport experience, Dr Colin Gourley. Colin was aware of the emerging possibilities in the eMobility space, and we discussed as part of the MECS business case whether we needed to research on battery swapping, charge points, the evolution of ‘petrol’ stations among other links to eCooking.  Ed Brown had already undertaken research on battery swapping in the SONG project in Kenya, and while it gave slightly unclear learnings because of the batteries used, it offered insights into how swapping batteries might offer a way forward for eCooking in off-grid areas (a central charge station, or mini grid, run by a community).

We have kept an eye on eMobility innovations – Nio are commercially swapping out car batteries in Norway (2022) (Toyota tried many years ago (2018) and didn’t follow through – probably too early).  Of course, batteries themselves are becoming stronger, and the learning curve leads to ongoing price reductions.  Energy storage generally is a major idea that can strengthen grids, and eVehicles have been proposed as being a way to double up both for grid management and for decarbonised transport.  And indeed, there has been a thread of research taking batteries from eBikes and seeing how they might double up as off-grid cooking units to give a transport or cooking experience (unpublished).  As Prof Matt Leach commented on reading this draft regarding managing the grid supplies: – “Vehicle to Grid (V2G) has been a long-standing opportunity that has taken a while to mature, but in the meantime ‘Vehicle to Home’ and Vehicle to Load’ have emerged as equally interesting options, and ones which don’t need all the same protections as grid export…so we could see Vehicle to Cook (V2C)”. 

Regarding Grid management, Bangladesh was an early adopter of e-enhanced rickshaws, (surprisingly with lead acid batteries), and has reported that peak demand is now at midnight because these bikes are re-charging.  An indication that eMobility even in terms of eBikes and eTrikes could stress the management of the grid. We can also note that midnight for EV recharging may not clash with a potential peak demand of eCooking which is more likely at 6 to 8pm.

So, what are some of the implications for eCooking? From one point of view, eMobility might be a distraction from eCooking.  At the moment we are working with KPLC in Kenya and Umeme in Uganda on pilots because they both have surplus generating capacity, and need an increase in demand to make the system profitable.  eCooking is a viable way for demand to be stimulated, but if eMobility is going to soak up that excess capacity, then will planners still want to encourage eCooking?  One of the arguments for eCooking is that it’s not about the existing capacity of the grid, but about the growing commitments to a decarbonised future that will strengthen the grid or utilise off-grid technology in all locations. 

So, from another point of view, the demand for eMobility may increase the demand for expanding and strengthening the delivery of electricity.  Investors in renewable generation could plan for, and model, a return based on both eMobility and eCooking.  Again, Prof Leach has given a sensible insight: – “There is a difference between more electricity use (kWhs) and more load (kWs). As long as eCook and EV charging are not concurrent, they can both help grow kWh demand, which is what utilities make money on. The issue with EV charging and with eCook individually is that most people want to do it at the same time, which could increase (or adds new) peak loads, which is very expensive in terms of infrastructure. eCook alongside EVs could be win-win-win…”. eCooking would likely be a peak during the evening for a few hours, while overnight charging of EVs could, like Bangladesh, result in peaks much later in the night.  It may become a question of smart management of the grid, and assisting consumers to implement helpful behaviours. While improving access to electricity has been plagued by low demand (from lights, TV and phone charging), if households and businesses are using both eCooking and eMobility, then the landscape changes and the prospects for returns on grid investment increase.

At the conference, a list of challenges was presented for implementing eMobility (eBikes). I considered the list, and it could have so easily been a list of eCooking challenges.  If eMobility and eCooking have the same challenges, then we may find further synergies emerging in the two approaches – creating perhaps a virtuous cycle of development of the two. Familiarity may also kick in with consumers.  As they become more familiar with managing the battery on an eBike and fixing minor electrical problems, what might that do for encouraging eCooking and providing a greater system of maintenance and repair. 

There were voices at the conference concerned about eWaste and eMobility and we have a thread of research on that too for eCooking.

So eMobility – one to watch? Will it prompt a stronger landscape and acceptance of eAnything, or will it distract from eCooking?  Bottom line, we are increasingly suggesting that any integrated modern energy planning should include the future use of eCooking, and I guess, it has to also include the future use of eMobility.

Featured Image Credit: Arc Ride Factory Kenya, Ed Brown, 2022.

Opportunity: Women in Modern Energy Cooking (WMEC) initiative launched