Finding Clean Cooking Technologies for the Poorest of the Poor

“Around the world, 3 billion poor people […] cook over unventilated wood, coal or dung fires. About 4 million deaths a year are associated with inhaling the smoke,” reports nature.com. Significant advances have been made in the production and distribution of cleaner, more affordable ways of cooking for impoverished communities from South America to Africa to India. These stove technologies use wood, crop residue, dung, ethanol/biofuels, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), biogas and even solar energy. 

The goal of this post is to complement and provide background for a discussion on the most affordable and efficient clean cooking technologies. The majority of the ideas expressed in this post are from Patricia McArdle, a former board member of Solar Cookers International and Solar Household Energy, who has been involved with TIDES since its founding in 2007, and from Scott Sklar, President and founder of The Stella Group, Ltd, which focuses on clean energy technology optimization. Additional edits are provided by Scotty Davids, an intern with StarTides and a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy. 

Because of the need for clean cooking solutions in developing countries, tens of millions of dollars have been spent over the past decade on the research and field testing of biomass-burning stoves by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), the Shell Foundation, the U.S. Departments of Energy and State and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  According to McArdle, solar thermal cookers, the only cooking device that produces zero emissions, has been essentially dismissed as a viable technology by these organizations.  

“Influenced by one of their most prominent advisors, U.C. Berkeley professor Dr. Kirk Smith, and by the World LPG Association, the GACC is now promoting LPG as the cleanest of all cooking fuels for the poor—a move I consider to be completely unsustainable,” says McArdle,  “since it involves the use of a fossil fuel and can only succeed with permanent and economically distorting subsidies.  The GACC has given little support to solar thermal cooking technology despite our years of efforts to educate them.”

McArdle argues that in sunny, arid regions of the world, solar thermal devices should be Plastic_cookits_during_training_in_Sudanthe primary cooking technology for the poorest of the poor with locally made retained heat containers utilized to keep food and water hot for consumption after dark.  “Scarce wood, brush and dung should only have to be burned when there’s no sun.  In my latest visit (Jan 2015) to two Sudanese refugee camps in eastern Chad, the women had only two options for cooking.  Wood that they gathered at great risk from the few remaining trees in the surrounding desert or free sunshine. “

McArdle’s comments differ from the position of Dr. Smith, which is to promote subsidized LPG and, “Throw out your ideology. Don’t worry about renewable energy. If you want to cook with renewable energy, do it yourself. Don’t ask the poor to do it.”  

According to McArdle, the dependence of solar cooking technology on direct but intermittent sunlight is being addressed by technologies that include newly developed solar thermal heat storage units that use molten salts and by simple, locally-made retained-heat containers.  She acknowledges that combustion stoves will still be needed for back-up cooking when there is no solar energy available for extended periods of time, but she also argues that it makes no sense to burn anything to cook your food on days when free solar energy is available.  

Scott Sklar responds to Patricia’s comments.

“I generally share Pat’s views, with some slight deviations. I believe biogas in certain countries and places is both practical, cost-effective and sustainable. And there have been some advances that could address access to the poorest-of-the-poor. I also believe Patricia is exactly on solar, and there has been good product development – of course, needs to be way more.”

Ajay Chandak, an ISES board member and the founder of  PRINCE India has developed several low cost  floating biogas digesters one of which his extended family uses almost daily at his home in Dhule, India, along with a parabolic solar cooker.

“Although biogas digesters are great where adequate animal and vegetable waste are available,” says McArdle, “I am skeptical about the promotion of ethanol as a cooking fuel for the world’s poorest people since they will never have the means to manufacture or purchase it for daily use.  The poorest three billion people on earth will continue to harvest whatever is available (hopefully this will someday soon include sunshine for many of them) for cooking and heating water.”  McArdle’s other concern about ethanol is that it is produced on cropland that might be more productively used to grow food or on plantations that have been cleared by destroying biologically diverse tropical forests.  

So how can you decide which technology (or combination of technologies) is best for a specific community? How do you make a simple solar oven as marketable as a technologically advanced natural gas stove, especially when the gas is subsidized? How can you promote a culture change away from biofuels that are being used by millions of people around the world? These are the questions  that need to be addressed by the experts in the field. Funding needs to continue to flow toward clean cooking technologies, and all options need to be considered and expanded upon. The StarTides team welcomes any and all comments below. 

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TIDES Research Assistant Intern
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