A Perspective on the Value of Cooking with Off-grid Power

By Mahesh Bhave

Why should rural electrification efforts worldwide — in Africa, India, Central and South America — isolate cooking from other core applications such as lighting, fans, phone charging, and TV? Why can’t electricity for cooking be included in the overall solution? Why should the alternative to biomass burning — charcoal, dung, wood, kerosene — which causes 1.3 million untimely deaths due to smoke inhalation in India, only be LPG? This was the point made in Niti Aayog’s excellent strategy document by Dr. Arvind Panagariya and Mr. Anil K. Jain, “Electricity and Clean Cooking Strategy for India,” April 11, 2016.

The report notes, “The announcement in Union Budget (2016-17) of extending LPG connections to 50 million BPL (Below Poverty Line) families in the next 3 years is a major step forward. However, there is a total of over 120 million [some estimate over 200 million] households without a clean cooking solution so that a strategy based on LPG alone may take a long time.”

On April 3, 2017, the Government of India’s Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas announced that 32.5 million LPG connections were released in FY 2016-17. With this, the national LPG coverage is now estimated at 72.8 percent with 198.8 million active consumers in urban and rural areas.

This translates into ~ 23 million tons/year of LPG consumption, ~ 50 percent of which is imported. Assuming 11+ million tons of imports at ~ $430 per ton means India’s import bill surpasses $5 billion per year. With demand rising at ~ 10 percent per year, this expense will continue to climb.

While LPG for cooking strategy is expensive, the clean-burning cookstoves strategy is ineffective. States the strategy report, “…for rural India, which comprises 69 percent of the nation’s population as per 2011 census, we have had no ‘clean cooking fuel’ strategy until recently. Instead, we only had an “efficient-cook-stove” strategy. … As per a recent large-scale study by the Council of Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a think-tank, the coverage of efficient cook-stoves in the sample states is not more than 1 percent!”

Electricity for Cooking: Competes with Biomass Burning and LPG Use

Thus, the question of whether and how electricity-based cooking substitutes for a) biomass burning and for b) LPG use deserves attention.

The strategy document continues, “An advantage of the electricity-based solution is that it can make use of solar power in both urban and rural areas. The solution may be particularly attractive in remote rural areas where electricity grid may take time to reach but sunshine is plentifully available and solar energy may be easier to provide.”

The speculative and wishful tone of the article was justified in April 2016. But such is the pace of advance in battery and solar photovoltaics technologies that a year later on March 29, 2017, a team of us in San Diego cooked a meal for four using solar panels, Li-ion batteries, and a resistive hob. Miraculous though this experience was, technically this is simple. The critical question is: Can this solution be scaled, economically?

The strategy paper states, “According to a NITI Aayog study, the consumption of 8 to 10 LPG cylinders (14.2 kg each) per year is equivalent to electricity consumption of nearly 4 kWh per day. This implies that at prevailing electricity prices, the electric solution costs about the same as the LPG solution at the crude oil price of around $60 per barrel.” The authors assumed grid electricity prices; my independent calculations confirm this assessment to be true even for a solar+battery-based solution.

Affordable, Technically Feasible, and Ethnic Cooking Compatible

Grid independent, electricity-based cooking is affordable and economical based on projected trends in battery pricing. Further, the market for electricity for cooking is both urban and rural, and thus all families in India, at least 270 million! It is in India’s national interest to promote grid-independent, electricity-based cooking, and eliminate even LPG as the cooking fuel. This will reduce the foreign exchange drain, promote health, and contribute to offsetting global warming emissions, consistent with the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.

To the objection often raised, but is Indian food amenable to flame-free cooking? In my experience, it is. When I joined IIM Kozhikode as a visiting professor in 2011, I had the option of signing up for a LPG cylinder. The hassle of forms to be filled, deposit paid that later has to be reclaimed, delivery coordination of the heavy cylinder, the need to purchase a new burner…made me explore electricity-based options, with trepidation. I was used to the ease of LPG or piped-gas based cooking, and had only rarely used resistive electric cooktops.

My induction cooktop was a big relief, it could do everything I wanted. It worked on grid electricity. It could easily have been powered by rooftop or balcony-based solar panels and Li-ion batteries. Cooking is thus possible, and what a relief this is, whether grid power is available or not.

The IIM campus lost power often, at least three times a day, on mornings occasionally and invariably in the evenings. When this happened, the diesel generator kicked in within a few minutes — expensive, polluting, and noisy, if you lived close to where it was located.

In their strategy paper, Dr. Panagariya echoes my experiences exactly, “During 40 years of living abroad, one of us has had the option to choose between gas and electric cooktops and he always chose the latter. This never came in the way of cooking dishes from any parts of India. And, yes, chapattis do puff up on an electric cooktop as well as on a gas cooktop. Moreover, the electric cooktop is easier to keep clean!”

I gifted my induction cooktop to a colleague — a fond goodbye — when I left IIM in December 2016. (Courtesy of renewableenergyworld.com)

Mahesh P. Bhave, Founder, BHAVE Power Systems, San Diego