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Modelling the costs and benefits of moving to modern energy cooking services

13th May 2021

By Matt Leach (Gamos Ltd.)

Electric cooking is one of the key options for a transition to modern energy cooking services, and SDG7 aims for universal access to electricity by 2030. The IEA report tremendous progress and gains on access to electricity – in 2019, the number of people without electricity access dropped to 770 million, a record low in recent years.   However, alongside such progress come certain compromises, resulting in the grid being weak in the more remote locations. Completing universal access also envisages more than 50% of the future energy access gains being made through stand-alone systems and mini-grids, rather than grid connection. The connection capacity of mini-grids and SHS is widely assumed to be insufficient to support electric cooking, and many of those connected to grids could find the supply too unreliable, and/or assume electricity is too expensive, for cooking.

Social and technical developments may help tackle these issues, notably possible technical solutions include higher performance and lower cost battery storage supporting cooking on unreliable grids, lower cost PV for off-grid users, and mini-grid developers taking advantage of these various trends to increase their capacity. While technical solutions may be around the corner, they raise questions both of affordability and of the environmental impacts associated with the production of the equipment.

The MECS programme, as well as other researchers internationally, are exploring individual parts of this dilemma, for instance modelling uses of electricity by households, the costs of cooking with electricity, the impact of electric cooking on grids and the lifecycle environmental impacts of different cooking options. However, people without clean cooking live in widely varied contexts, including local differences in fuel prices, national differences in the mix of sources supplying the electricity grid, societal differences in cuisine and cooking practices, etc, etc. Individual studies tend therefore to be relevant to one locality or moment in time, and combining insights from the literature to gain an overall sense of the relative social, technical, economic, health and environmental performance of different cooking options is challenging.

The modelling workstream within the MECS programme set out to develop a toolkit of models and analysis that can represent the range of benefits and impacts of different approaches to delivering clean cooking services, and to apply the combined toolkit consistently to a set of case studies for transitions of households from traditional fuels to electric cooking, in different contexts.

A new working paper Modelling the costs and benefits of moving to Modern Energy Cooking Services – methods & application to three case studies presents the outcomes of this work. The paper provides outlines of each of the individual models and how they are used, as well as links to further publications providing more detail, for the specialist who wants to dig deeper. The paper then presents the results of three case studies: for urban households connected to the grid in Zambia; for mini-grid connected households in Tanzania; and for off-grid households in Kenya.

Models of the timing of household electricity use and the additional electricity used for cooking, grounded in empirical evidence from MECS cooking diary studies show the important effects of diversity in when –  and how – people use their appliances. The ‘peak’ load from a community will in practice be much lower than would occur if everyone is assumed to cook simultaneously. The electricity network modelling then shows that eCooking can be accommodated to a significant extent on existing grids and even on mini-grids, using existing spare capacity in the network, as well as helping identify the key constraints to wider eCooking uptake. The study confirms that eCooking can be cost effective and offer overall reductions in environmental and health impacts, especially compared to cooking with charcoal, in all of the case study contexts. The life cycle assessment points out potential ‘hotspots’ of impacts, such as the toxic preservatives typically used to treat wooden poles supporting electricity distribution cables, guiding system designers.

Future developments to integrate some or all of the models into an openly accessible tool is a long term aspiration, and would allow others to conduct similar investigations in their own countries or contexts. But even without that, the results reported in the working paper for a set of illustrative cases offer useful guidance to other researchers looking to extend their own work, and helps find the greatest benefits and avoid the most significant impacts for electric cooking generally.  

The working paper can be found here.


Featured image by Jon Leary (MECS), 2019.