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No silver bullet

18th October 2021

By Dr. Simon Batchelor (Gamos Ltd. / Loughborough University).

As a programme we are sometimes challenged as to why we put so much emphasis on integrating ecooking needs into planning for electricity.   Do we believe that electricity is a silver bullet that will fulfil the need for clean cooking?

The short answer is no, MECS does not believe that electricity is the only way forward, but we do believe it is a neglected way forward.   We don’t believe that electricity is a silver bullet that solves that problem in all contexts, but in this blog I would like to give a slightly longer answer that tries to explain why we do so much research on ecooking, and why we don’t do anything on improved biomass cookstoves.

Although the UK Aid funded programme of MECS officially started in 2018, the formative research for MECS started long before. Ignoring for the moment the 4 decades of work in renewable energy and improved cookstoves that the core team had under their belt, a key moment happened in 2012 (I think this was our first public foray). An increased awareness of the fall in cost of Solar Photovoltaics coupled with an awareness that energy storage would also experience a strong learning curve fall in price over the coming decade, made the core researchers ask whether a solar home system could be made cheaply enough to fulfil the cooking needs of the poor (or a portion of the poor (the researchers were aware of solar thermal cookers, and that their main limitation was cooking in the middle of the day outside. They felt SHS would offer a better, more ‘manageable’ cooking experience)). They judged the affordability by considering the data in World Bank, which effectively said that over 1.2 billion users of polluting fuels paid more than $10 a month for their fuel. So the simplified logic said that if a SHS could be built that could do cooking and was available on a pay as you go basis for $10 (we stretched it to $12) per month that would be affordable – households could substitute their expenditure on polluting fuels for the PAYG payments. In 2013 the researchers identified that the learning curves of PV and energy storage suggested that such a system would be cost feasible by 2020.

Of course, while this was the basis of the core idea, the researchers were experienced enough to know that its not that simple.  SHS were never going to be a silver bullet, and a lot of research on markets, finance models, socio-cultural barriers, waste management, standards, import duties, etc was ramped up. 

Between the years 2012 and 2018, the idea was discussed further, and research deepened.  However a key contextual problem came to light.   Almost by definition, the 1.2 billion who pay for the polluting biomass fuels are in urban, peri urban or dense rural market towns.   The remaining 1.6 billion rural consumers variously collect their biomass and ‘pay’ for it in back breaking labour, time and ‘women’s drudgery’.  No matter how cheap the SHS there is the possibility that households might not be willing to swap (predominantly) women and children’s time for a monetary outlay on a PAYGO basis. 

As that journey continued, researchers became aware of the significant gains in electrification that have occurred in that decade, and that those who paid for their polluting fuel were not leveraging or using their new access to grid electricity for cooking.  The research journey expanded to try to identify why this wasn’t happening.  What we found was that modern energy planning (i.e. access planning involving grid expansion and off-grid planning) was disassociated from cooking needs.  ‘Clean cooking’ had become a thing, and a ‘cooking sector’ had formed, which barely talked about electricity.  And it was not one sided.  Those planning grid expansion also rarely asked the question ‘in ten years time will these transformers  and wires be strong enough to take cooking loads?’.  The political economy of this mutual neglect is explored in a working paper by myself, and  a forthcoming paper by Newell from the University of Sussex.   

International players pride themselves on being fuel agnostic and their planning takes into account the context of each country and each market segment.  Indeed, what prompts this blog is a comment by a senior figure that MECS is too focussed on electricity and should be more fuel agnostic.   However, when you look at publications pre 2017, electricity is mostly not listed as one of the possibilities for cooking!  As researchers sought funding during 2017, there was even an email from a major international stakeholder in cooking that pushed back on an article by publica by saying ‘we deal with all cooking fuels – biomass, ethanol, biogas, briquettes, LPG’.  This was almost the final straw for the researchers when they wanted to scream ‘and where is electricity in that list?’.  We describe some of our rationale in a paper called ‘Two Birds, One Stone’.

So by the time the MECS business case was being created, the focus was on modern energy cooking services.  Modern energy does indeed include other clean modern fuels such as LPG, ethanol, biogas as well as electricity, and we have work on each (eg energy efficient pots for gas, the potential of bioLPG, linking LPG to data flows, and biogas bottling among others), however the programme defined itself by saying that it would not work with solid biomass fuels.  That was not because solid biomass use was going to disappear overnight, nor indeed that it had no place at all in a 2030 world which fulfilled the SDGs, but rather that a) there were other people working on programmes to improve solid biomass consumption (eg briquetting) and b) that by defining our programme with modern energy we would be focused on the SDG7.

So why then do we sometimes present as only be interested in electricity?  Of course there are multiple reason, but I present three. 

Leveraging grid electricity from a users perspective makes sense – it seems to us that one of the reasons that electricity was barely discussed pre-2017 was that stakeholders including planners were not aware of energy efficient cooking appliances.   There was a little discussion about how an induction stove is more efficient than a coil hotplate, and it seems that only Cowan in 2008 had ever actually compared fuel costs including electricity in SSA.  Our work on energy efficient appliances showed that the user could cook a significant proportion of their preferred cultural menu for significantly less cost than using charcoal or gas.  And if they are connected, there are huge gains to be made in cleanliness, timeliness, not having to go out the house to find the fuel, all sorts of advantages that developed economies just embed as a basic right of a household.

Leveraging grid electricity from a finance and investment point of view makes sense – the ‘cooking sector’ lament that there is a lack of political will and focus on cooking, resulting in under investment.  They say less than $100m each year has been invested in the cooking sector globally.  But this figure relies on the ‘mutual neglect’ separation of energy access from clean cooking.  An average of $26 billion was invested each year in modern energy in SSA over the last 4 years, Developing Asia $34 billion, India $52 billion, in generation (both fossil fuels and renewables) and distribution.  Every dollar of that investment is potentially an investment in clean cooking.  It lays the ground work for a household to find $50 for an energy efficient electric cooking appliance that will give them a clean cooking experience.  We agree that financial and political commitment to clean cooking has been sadly lacking, but we focus on an opportunity.  By leveraging existing, and indeed planned, gains in access to renewable modern energy, we potentially use that investment with a multiplier effect on clean cooking. 

Matching needs with infrastructure makes future sense – I said above that we noticed the mismatch between how much people pay for the fuel and the concept of a cooking SHS.  But the corollary of that was that we realised that most of the 1.2 billion who are paying for the solid biomass fuel, have now been connected to the grid!  We often use the headline that if there are 760 million not connected, but 2.8 billion without access to clean cooking, then by implication there are 2 billion who are connected and yet continue to use polluting fuels.  Like all headlines that hides the nuances of the type of access, but nevertheless there are over a billion who have connection to a strong supply and yet don’t use it for cooking.  Again, the concept is that the infrastructure is there, and that a campaign on appliances could make gains quickly.  We also became aware that urbanisation is an issue, and that when population projections are made of an extra 2 billion people by 2050, and that these people will mainly be in developing economies, the majority will be in urban centres – it makes sense to discuss gains in clean cooking through an urbanisation lens.  Perhaps controversially I personally believe that urban poverty is actually more ‘painful’ than rural poverty  since the urban poor have lost their social networks and have no farming assets to fall back on in harsh times.

So I return to the idea that there is no silver bullet.  MECS does not believe that electricity is the only way forward, but we do believe it is a neglected way forward.   That if we can get governments and planners to discuss cooking in the same room and same breath as planning for modern energy access, we would see significant progress.  So when we sign up to the many calls for more political and investment focus on clean cooking, we are looking for the statement that says cooking should be more integrated into the planning for modern energy access.   That integration may well conclude that LPG is a transition fuel, or that ethanol would be good in the urban mix.  We have supported such action research.  That integration could conclude that solid biomass improved cookstoves are relevant to the remote rural areas – that is something our programme cannot support research on, but we can see how some contexts may point to that way forward but its not in our mandate. 

What has become important to us is that cooking is discussed in the same room as planning for electrification – cooking integrated into national energy access planning.  Whether grid, off-grid, hybrid, fuel stacked – we want to see all households with clear clean cooking possibilities available through existing and new infrastructure.

Finally almost as a footnote I would like to just say that when in 2012 we were looking at SHS, we thought by 2020 the cost of a viable cooking system would be $700 ex factory.  I am pleased to say colleagues in Malawi are seeing ecooking SHS’s at $300 ex factory (with battery) – so the reduction in costs due to learning curves on PV and energy storage were steeper than we expected.  In this case – it is great to be wrong!


Featured image: Energies and Utilities Alliance.