Overcoming India’s clean cooking challenge

The recently published 'Roadmap to Access to Clean Cooking Energy in India', which aims to provide direction to India's transition to energy-efficient cooking systems, is a commendable effort

By Shweta Miriam Koshy
Published: Thursday 26 December 2019
Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

Today, 1,104 terawatt-hour (tWh) of energy is used for cooking in India. The annual usage varies from household to household. But on an average, the yearly use is quoted as 7-8 liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders of 14.2 kilograms; 170 standard cubic meter (scm) of piped natural gas (PNG) or about 1,022 kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity.

According to Niti Aayog’s Indian Energy Security Scenario portal, the energy demand for cooking in 2047 will be between 410 tWh to 599 tWh, corresponding to ‘heroic effort’ and ‘least effort’ scenarios. The reduction in energy demand, they claim, will be from the introduction of more energy-efficient cooking systems.

The recently published Roadmap to Access to Clean Cooking Energy in India is an attempt to give direction to this transition, determining the various interventions needed.

In its projection, the report claims that cooking will continue to rely heavily on LPG, stacked with other modes of cooking such as improved cookstoves (ICS) for biomass, biogas systems, PNG and electricity. The urban fuel supply will see large contribution from PNG and electricity, replacing a percentage of LPG use. Meanwhile, even in the most ambitious of scenario, the rural segment will see very little penetration of PNG and electricity, at most 20 percent.  

Government pushes for LPG in rural and PNG in urban

Following the implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, the number of LPG connections has shot up considerably. Union Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MoPNG), Dharmendra Pradhan was quoted as saying: “The coverage of LPG in the country has now reached 94 per cent from about 55 per cent in 2014”.

Currently, according to the MoPNG, there are over 25.78 crore subsidised and 1.67 crore non-subsidised LPG consumers. But reach means little if the use is not sustained. The national average for LPG consumption is 6.25 cylinders (14.2 kg) per annum, whereas annual LPG consumption of Ujjwala consumer is 2.76 cylinders (14.2 kg). These refill numbers are further skewed toward the urban user, since many rural Ujjwala beneficiaries are yet to come back for their second or third refill.

Two distinct reasons have been identified for the low refill rates in the rural segment — lack of distribution network and affordability. Distribution partners are either far away or take days to replace a finished cylinder. Compounded by the high cost of refill cylinders, consumers often practice stacking of fuel and slip back to biomass / kerosene usage.

Expanding LPG use in rural areas, though the right move, will require the urban population to withdraw from its consumption of LPG. Therefore, as with push for LPG use in rural areas, there has been a nudge for PNG into the cities.

As of the 10th City Gas Distribution bidding round, tenders have been allocated to extend the PNG network in over 229 Geographical Areas covering 406 districts across the country — 70 per cent of India’s population and 53 per cent of its area. 

Provisional figures by MoPNG for 2017-2018 predicts a definite, significant uptick in PNG use. However, ground surveys show that activities under PNG network expansion have been slow and patchy. The urban population, just as the rural population, practices stacking and continues to rely heavily on LPG.

Transition in rural India requires progressive measures

To increase LPG use in rural areas, the Roadmap calls for interventions to strengthen the distribution network by employing local self-help groups; and to improve affordability through better interest loans and payment plans for procuring refills.

But in prioritizing the shift away from biomass to LPG, the Roadmap fails to account for the need for behavioural change, which could take a few years. This will require a two-pronged approach.

First, an immediate push for existing efficient and clean cooking technologies to utilise the available biomass. Improved cookstoves (ICS) for biomass is given medium priority, including research to develop ‘cleaner’, efficient ICS technology, and improved pellet (read fuel) production. By pushing these to higher priority, the Roadmap could ensure safer cooking conditions; reduce household air pollution and the resulting health impacts.

To facilitate this, the Roadmap should look to employ self-help groups to develop a localised production chain for pellets; and the government must incentivise the consumers to utilise the more efficient ICS with high priority. Alternatively, smaller biogas systems could be utilised, but these are expensive and will require heavy subsidies.

Second, government mechanisms should discourage household use of biomass. Instead, government should support larger biogas plants at local industries — animal husbandry, milk companies — similar to existing programmes like “Promotion of Grid Interactive Biomass Power and Bagasse Cogeneration in Sugar Mills” and “Programme on Energy from Urban, Industrial and Agricultural Wastes/Residues”.

If the electricity produced is redirected to the community, it could be enough of an incentive for the local population to contribute with their local waste.

The Roadmap supports and even encourages stacking of clean cooking fuels. While rural consumers can stack their LPG use with ICSs and even solar- based cooking, urban users can stack their PNG use with electricity-based cooking.

Stacking offers a fall back when one cooking fuel fails. But cooking based on electricity, ICTs and solar are all relatively unknown. They will require concerted efforts at research and development of more efficient systems. The distribution networks for fuels will need to be strengthened, based on local supply and demand conditions; and any shift will require awareness generation drives. 

Further, introduction of fuel-agnostic, local intermediaries should be considered. Based on their knowledge of local fuel availability and affordability, they are best placed to determine the fuel mix based on local factors.

For the suggested ‘multi-fuel approach’, these intermediaries will bring synergy between the various ministries and their efforts/programmes; act as nodal agencies for state or central programmes — disbursing subsidy and ensuring that no households draw subsidies for multiple fuels; and also facilitate financing either through low-cost loans or other micro financing models.

Further by intermediating for all clean cooking fuels, a single local intermediary will reduce the cost of extending the distribution network.

The Roadmap rightly considers various factors like the availability, affordability and the ability to sustain usage to determine the fuel supply for a specific area. It also calls to attention the user’s cooking patterns and the implications of social and cultural factors. Overall, it is a commendable effort.

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