Renewable Energy

Clean(er) cooking in India: Country should explore e-cooking but address these challenges before switching

Lack of a reliable power supply is a major challenge to e-cooking adoption

By Noble Varghese
Published: Monday 31 July 2023
Representative photo: iStock.__

This is the second of a series exploring why India needs clean cooking. Read the first part here.

India has seen tremendous economic growth in the past three decades. Most indicators of economic growth are often linked to a rise in per capita energy consumption and purchasing power parity, which indicate a higher quality of life. 

Access to clean fuels is one such indicator. It is also covered under the United Nations (UN)-mandated Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 — Access to Affordable and Clean Energy. Derailed SDG targets on clean energy, however, have some serious consequences.

Indoor air pollution (IAP), caused by the lack of access to affordable clean cooking fuels, is a widely acknowledged problem that significantly lowers the quality of life, according to studiesMany countries have taken steps to reduce the severe impacts related to it. Though a significant decline in deaths related to IAP was seen globally over the last three decades, India has not progressed at the same rate.

 This analysis by the author, based on data from The State of Global Air 2020 by the Health Effects Institute, compares the decline in deaths due to IAP from 1990 to 2019 in India and the world. India still witnesses over half a million premature deaths every year due to IAP. 

Although the Centre has taken this issue seriously and encouraged several clean cooking initiatives — household biogas plants across rural villages, toilet-linked-cookstove projects, Rajiv Gandhi Gram LPG Vitrak Yojana launched in 2009 and renamed in 2016 to the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) — over the years, none of these schemes have proven effective in providing sustained clean fuel or completely replacing biomass.

Also read: India’s renewable energy race: MP, UP will take more than 50 years to meet 2022 target at current pace

At best, these schemes have resulted in fuel-stacking, where households stock multiple kinds of fuel in addition to Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for their various energy needs. The main reasons have been affordability, LPG cylinder access and / or preference for existing socio-cultural norms.

There have been recent policy announcements from various government bodies that seem to indicate a new direction. The Bureau of Energy Efficiency’s “Go Electric” campaign, launched in 2021; Energy Efficiency Services Ltd’s 2023 subsidy scheme for induction cookstoves and PM Narendra Modi’s endorsement of Indian Oil Corporation’s solar PV e-cookstove in 2023 indicate that the government wants to adopt electric cooking (e-cooking) as the next phase of its clean cooking strategy.

E-cooking has many benefits, like improved indoor air quality, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and enhanced per capita energy access for India. A 2020 study by Council on Energy, Environment and Water found e-cooking is relatively cheaper than using LPG if the power tariffs for the consumer are below Rs 9/kWh (unit) and prices of LPG are above Rs 900 per cylinder refill (current LPG prices are around Rs 1100 per refill).

Delhi and Tamil Nadu are ideal cases for such a scenario — both geographies have generous electricity subsidies that ensure consumers pay well below Rs 5 per unit on average. Not surprisingly, these states also have the highest e-cooking adoption rates in the country. 

However, there are some major barriers to e-cooking. For starters, consumer awareness and acceptance of new forms of cooking are low, especially in a country where cooking patterns, foods and cultures change every 40 kilometres. E-cooking requires a different approach, which might be hard to adopt even though it is cleaner and easier. 

Microwaves, for example, need you to understand power settings for every kind of food, requiring a learning curve. Induction cooktops also need an understanding of power settings but don’t get hot like a traditional stove. They also need iron-based utensils as non-ferrous metals like copper, aluminium or brass will not work on them. And electric rice cookers can’t be used to cook other foods, unlike pressure cookers.

Rural geographies have their own challenges. Cultural aspects like caste, for example, can act as a barrier to the penetration of clean cooking technologies. Sharmista Shankaranarayana, a rural development expert who has implemented clean cooking projects in south India, shared her experience. “Sometimes, the upper castes of a village where we worked would object to families belonging to the lower castes getting the same clean cookstove as them. We had to do a lot of convincing for the whole community to get access to the clean cookstoves.”

Also read: Clean(er) cooking in India: We need a transition to better solutions along with smarter policies

The lack of a reliable power supply presents another major challenge to e-cooking adoption. Even though the grid reaches every part of the country now, reliable, high-quality, uninterrupted power supply is still a far cry from most parts of rural India. 

Setting up mini-grids is a possible way to address both the electrification challenge and the clean cooking challenge. However, at average electricity prices of around Rs 20-Rs 30 per unit of electricity from mini-grids, these seem difficult for rural households without sufficient government subsidies or financial incentives from banks.

Urban India, on the other hand, presents a very different possibility. Here the grid is available and reliable, an ideal ground for encouraging large-scale e-cooking adoption. But just the availability of 24/7 electricity doesn’t necessarily mean policymakers can switch households to e-cooking right away.

The German Agency for International Cooperation, an international enterprise owned by the German government, partnered with Tata Power Central Odisha Distribution Limited (TPCODL) in 2021 as part of a study to simulate the effects of wide-scale e-cooking adoption on a typical grid.

They used data from the DISCOM (distribution company) for two feeders (urban and rural) to perform a load flow analysis and created sample load profiles based on multiple future scenarios. Three of those scenarios were: If e-cooking was adopted by 30 per cent, 70 per cent or 100 per cent of the population. 

Source: GIZ India / Florian Postel.

Based on their simulations, the researchers found urban feeders were almost fully loaded (base load was at 97 per cent). These feeders could not accommodate additional loads from e-cooking adoption unless the grid capacity was increased significantly or paired with solar and battery energy storage systems (BESS).

Before India switches to e-cooking, these multiple obstacles need to be addressed — the grid capacity should be upscaled to accommodate additional loads; it needs to decarbonise; BESS should be incorporated into the grid so e-cooking can also be ensured during night-time; e-cooking appliance should be made affordable (or subsidies given); and finally, all e-cooking campaigns should focus on behavioural changes. 

Unless these seemingly insurmountable challenges are addressed, India’s net-zero by 2070 ambition might just prove to be too ambitious.

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