Cheap electricity central to India’s clean cooking transition

e-cooking is clean cooking
India’s dependence on expensive imported LPG/PNG has hampered its transition to clean cooking methods.

Easy access to clean energy is a key determinant of standard of living as it has close linkages with the environment and climatic issues, and its impact on the well-being of an individual. The per capita energy consumption in a society is also established as one of the key factors in determining the human development index. In particular, the kind of energy source used in domestic cooking is considered a paramount factor due to its impact on the health and the time required in the cooking process.

The lack of access to clean fuels for cooking is included among the 12 indicators for measuring multidimensional poverty in the National Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) Baseline Report brought out by the NITI Aayog in September 2021. The 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, adopted by all member states of United Nations in 2015 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies for tackling climate change and nature conservation.

Universal access to modern energy cooking solutions is a key component to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7). The UN Secretary-General issued a global roadmap to achieve a radical transformation of energy access and transition which sets a timeline to ensure that additional one billion people gain access to clean cooking solutions by 2030. Over the past some years, the clean cooking sector has evolved. However, a report by the World Bank states that about 4 billion people, about half of the global population, cannot cook efficiently, cleanly, conveniently, reliably, safely, and affordably.

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What is clean cooking

In 2014, WHO issued guidelines on clean fuels and technologies for household cooking, heating, and lighting to guide policymakers decide the best approaches to reducing household air pollution. The guidelines issued after extensive scientific assessment identify the energy systems which can be considered clean for health in the home, and specify the levels of emissions that pose health risks. The WHO guidelines are targeted at public health policy makers and scientists working with energy, environment and related sectors, to formulate and implement policies that minimise the negative impact of household fuel combustion on an individual’s health.

As per these new standards for clean combustion, any type of cooking stove is considered clean if its emissions meet WHO guidelines. Currently available energy options that are considered clean include electricity, LPG/PNG, ethanol, solar, and improved cooking stoves (ICS) based on biomass. The Guidelines discourage household use of kerosene and unprocessed coal due to high health risks from these fuels.

The International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) has identified a set of voluntary performance targets (VPTs) that align with the WHO guideline levels. Using these VPTs for cookstoves based on laboratory testing, a stove that achieves tier 4 or tier 5 for PM2.5 emissions based on voluntary performance targets (VPTs) is classified as clean for PM2.5 emissions. Stoves must also be classified as tier 5 for CO emissions to be considered clean for health.

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Assessment of the current energy use pattern

An independent study conducted in 2019-20 by the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) found that despite having LPG connections, around 54% of households in India continue to use traditional solid fuels such as firewood, dung cakes, agriculture residue, charcoal, and kerosene, either exclusively or with LPG, thus contributing to indoor air pollution. Even globally, nearly two in five people, or around three billion people, have to rely on wood, coal, charcoal, or animal waste for cooking or heating. The resulting excess harvesting of biomasses to meet domestic cooking requirements adversely impact the global carbon cycle leading to climate change and global warming.

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The problem of indoor pollution caused by traditional stoves using biomass for combustion has not been discussed much. Such pollution even if vented out of the dwellings can cause considerable outdoor pollution if located in congested urban area. The use of such cooking methods increases the risks of suffering from a range of diseases connected to pulmonary disorders as well as narrowed heart arteries, and lung cancer. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the household air pollution produced by these conventional fuels leads to around four million deaths every year – more than the death toll caused by malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS combined.

In India alone, an estimated half a million deaths each year can be attributed to household air pollution from cooking. Moreover, in rural areas, women and girls spend considerable time every day collecting firewood and cooking using inefficient stoves which could be utilised for more productive purposes such as learning in school or income-generating activities. Depriving womenfolk of such opportunities leads to greater gender disparities in society. For these reasons, addressing the continued use of traditional fuels such as wood and conventional cook stoves is one of the world’s most pressing social, health, and environmental problems.

Government initiatives for clean cooking

In recent years, the government has launched several initiatives to intensify the dissemination of clean cooking energy solutions like improved biomass cook stoves, biogas plants, LPG, PNG, and electric cooking in India.

Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna: The most prominent of all government schemes launched so far is the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna (PMUY) initiated in 2016. Recognising the need for cleaner fuel, the government decided to provide credit-linked subsidised LPG connections under PMUY to deprived households across the country. Over the past six years, the scheme has been successful in furthering the use of LPG, a cleaner fuel, by connecting over 60 million households to LPG.

Piped Natural Gas: Piped Natural Gas (PNG) is a cheaper option than LPG in India. A total of 8,217,913 connections were provided in the country as of September 2021, according to the data published by the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (PPAC). However, in a country that has around 29 crore households, there is still a long way to go, to create infrastructure for providing natural gas through pipes for domestic cooking. With a current import dependency of 55% of natural gas and the domestic production significantly lower than earlier projections due to a steady fall in gas output from the Kaveri field, it is not considered a practical alternative in the long run.

Go Electric Campaign: In February 2021, the Union ministry of power launched the “Go Electric” Campaign intending to create awareness among the masses about the benefits of switching over to electric vehicles (EVs), and electrical cooking (e-Cooking) using appliances such as induction cooktops, electric pressure cookers, etc. The Union power minister RK Singh on several occasions has emphasised the use of clean and safe electric cooking and urged the citizens to adopt e-cooking which is beneficial to consumers due to low heat wastage during the cooking process.

This campaign has the potential to help reduce the large import bills worth Rs 8 lakh crore annually. Since India has a surplus installed capacity for electricity generation, the Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL), a JV of PSUs in the power sector, is working to utilise clean energy in transportation and cooking.

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The cost factor in LPG use

Currently, LPG is the primary cooking fuel in more than 70% of Indian households, and 85% of households have LPG connections. The Ujjwala Yojna had success to an extent; however, due to the increased cost of petroleum products in the international market, the price of a domestic LPG cylinder in India was hiked several times during the last two years. The price of a 14.2 kg domestic cylinder was Rs 809 in May 2021, but rose to Rs 1,003 in May 2022.

The higher cost of an LPG cylinder is a major reason that despite around 85% of the households having LPG connections, up to 54% households continue to use traditional solid fuels such as firewood, dung cakes, agriculture residue, charcoal, and kerosene, either exclusively or with LPG. A survey of the Ujjwala beneficiaries in the country has revealed that almost a third of them had only gone for refilling once or twice a year.

Globally also, it is seen that LPG is used by households only as long as the cost is subsidised by the government. Another issue with the Ujjwala Yojna is that unlike urban areas where there exists a system of home delivery of the gas cylinder, in rural areas the consumer is required to go to the dealer to collect the gas cylinder. This takes at least half a day, adding to its cost and the villagers may also lose their wage of the day. Even in urban areas, about 37% of the households in slums do not receive LPG cylinders at their doorstep.

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Due to lower domestic production and an increasing number of household LPG connections, the volume of LPG imports has multiplied many times increasing from 0.8 million MT in 2000-01 to 17.1 million MT in 2021-22, thus exposing the country’s energy security to regional and global events, affecting supplies apart from putting pressure on foreign exchange for import.

The effort to cover more BPL families under PMUY has resulted in the import quantity going up by 100%during 2015-20, while the domestic production of LPG increased by 30% only.

The way to affordable clean cooking

Thus, changing the way India cooks is one of the ways to tackle the most pressing environmental, economic, and personal health problems that affect women and children disproportionately. The effort in this direction will require replacing traditional fireplaces with more energy-efficient cooking solutions to reduce smoke emissions, time needed to procure fuel, and time spent cooking.

In the past, cleaner cooking solutions were focused on lower price range improvised cook stoves using biomass as the fuel and having relatively better thermal efficiency. In the last two decades, the clean cooking sector has undergone a rapid technological change. The emergence of electric cooking on smart energy-efficient appliances has changed the perception of clean cooking and made e-Cooking more cost-effective.

Historically, electricity has not been promoted as a cooking fuel as it has been in short supply in India and other developing countries. However, after attaining almost 100% household electrification in the year 2018, the country is now moving towards providing quality reliable power to consumers. No doubt, it will require strong infrastructure support, especially during the peak demand period. Power transmission lines already reach every village, so the cost of transporting energy would be incremental when electricity replaces cooking gas.

The suggested transition coupled with the use of renewable sources for power generation, rather than coal, would reduce the carbon footprint even further. India had renewable energy installed capacity of 150 GW by the end-2021 and has updated targets under NDC to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45% by 2030 and achieve 50% cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil resources by 2030. Even now, there exists spare power-generating capacity in the country as of now, as demand growth has been far lower than anticipated. The plant load factor of thermal power stations has come down to around 60%, whereas it could comfortably go up to around 80%.

Current status of e-cooking and challenges

The CEEW study on market penetration of e-cooking in India found that induction cook stoves and rice cookers are the most commonly used devices, but only around 5% of Indian homes use e-cooking devices, with a higher prevalence in urban areas (10.3%) than rural areas (2.7%). Even among those using electricity as cooking energy, LPG remains the primary cooking fuel and electric cooking devices act as a backup. The survey also states that Tamil Nadu and Delhi have the highest proportion of e-cooking users (17%), the demand being driven by the prevailing rate of electricity cost and affordability of e-cooking devices.

Several studies on the various aspects of e-cooking have been carried out in India and abroad. The US Department of energy did a boiling water test which confirmed that the energy efficiency of three cook-tops namely LPG/PNG based, electric coil type, and induction type were at 40%, 74%, and 84% respectively. Handling an induction cooker is safe also as the cook top remains relatively cool and the heat is transferred to the cooking pan. Unlike gas or conventional electric stove, induction cooktops do not heat the surrounding air in the kitchen making it comfortable for the user, especially in summer under Indian climatic conditions.

A recent case study has found that cooking with induction cookers and ovens is cheaper compared to the use of LPG cylinders after the price rise in recent years. Moreover, electricity cost is more stable whereas the cost of LPG goes up with the rise in crude oil prices and also varies with the exchange rate of the currency. Last, but not least, induction cook tops heat faster and offer precise temperature control, both of which are critical for the nutritional value of the food cooked.

In general, induction stoves are more expensive than their electric and gas counterparts, since the technology is relatively new and it caters to a smaller market. Nevertheless, despite having some upfront cost, the induction cooker can still be economical in operation due to its high energy efficiency. Addressing many of the challenges listed above will be easier as the markets of such products expand and increasing awareness about e-cooking could be the first step on the way forward.

Given the current status of adoption of clean cooking across the developing world, the target of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for universal access to clean cooking by 2030 does not appear to be on track. Its success will depend on a range of factors including large-scale investments, participation of all stakeholders, and robust policy support mechanism. It has been estimated that to increase access to clean cooking services globally on a large scale, investment needs are in the range of $4.4 billion annually.

Global initiatives for clean cooking mission

The World Bank under its Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) has established a $500 million clean cooking fund to support through technical assistance, assessment studies, and financing in developing countries and could help about 20 million people gain access to cleaner and more efficient cooking and heating solutions. In India, the World Bank initiative is being implemented through the Modern Energy Cooking Services (MECS) Programme, a five-year programme funded by UK Aid for the transition from biomass/firewood cooking to clean cooking in Asia and Africa. It is a partnership between researchers, innovators, policymakers, and the ESMAP.

The programme under implementation through an Indian partner Finovista is focussing on identifying and mapping the agencies as potential partners and aspects on which they can partner, device manufacturing, analysing the current state of the clean cooking, the market opportunity, and currently available solutions. While the overall MECS programme will focus on cooking with genuinely clean modern fuels — including gas (both LPG and biogas), the main technology of focus is electric cooking appliances and their acceptance both to users and to those managing loads and delivery of grid and off-grid electricity.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is another global initiative, a public-private partnership led by the United Nations Foundation which is working with the long-term goals of universal adoption of clean cookstoves and to stimulate a thriving global market for clean cookstoves and fuels. The targeted market work of the alliance includes creating local stove testing and design centers, developing local financing to help scale up stoves, capacity development, and reducing local market barriers such as import tariffs.

The project is currently focused on Kenya, but is working in other parts of East Africa also. While identifying India as a very large potential market for cook stoves, it acknowledges the affordability of cook stoves as the key challenge for the end consumer.

Clean cooking: The road ahead

Considering a set of factors influencing the adoption of clean fuel, it is felt that there is no one solution that fits all. Any clean energy solution for a large population needs to be examined from multidimensional angles. The challenges, issues, and concerns in adopting electric energy for cooking are broadly the following:

• e- cooking device cost and the electricity consumption cost.
• Safety aspect from the user’s angle.
• The flexibility for cooking different cuisines.
• Availability of the after-sales services.
• The accessibility, reliability, and quality of the electricity supply.
• Robustness of the electrical infrastructure
• Technical understanding of users of electrical devices.
• The impact on the nutritional value of food cooked.

Given India’s dependence on imported LPG/PNG, it calls for innovative work to develop country-specific equipment for e-cooking. There is also a need for cost reduction through aggregation of demand and economies of scale.

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Krishna Kumar Sinha is an industrial policy and FDI expert based in New Delhi. His last assignment was as an industrial adviser in the department of industrial policy and promotion, DIPP, currently known as DPIIT, under the ministry of commerce and industry of the government of India.