Solar microgrids can power a shift towards induction cooking, which will change rural lives.
Microgrids and induction cooking stoves should be on the electoral platforms of political parties vying for votes in India’s 2014 elections.
In the literature on rural poverty, much is written about the unhealthy environment created by burning wood, coal, dung, or kerosene for cooking.
These fuels burn inefficiently, generate smoke, and produce emissions that cause global warming – carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and soot. Inhaling the smoke leads to respiratory illnesses and death. The labour of collecting firewood consumes hours, especially of women, which is disempowering, and an unproductive use of time. It leaves no time for income-generating, alternative activities, or for personal growth.
The distribution of clean-burning cook stoves is among the prominent remedies today to offset the negatives of biomass burning.
The well-designed stoves burn more efficiently, reduce smoke, simultaneously generate light and clean water in certain designs, and direct the smoke away from living spaces through chimneys.
An additional solution complementing the clean-burning stoves might be the use of induction cookers, particularly if they are powered by renewable energy or self-sufficient, reliable, microgrids.
FOR INDUCTION COOKING
The microgrids, say 100 KW to several megawatt capacity, may use multiple electricity generation sources like solar photovoltaics, locally produced biogas-based generators, batteries, small wind turbines, and even diesel generators. The latter, though not “green,” substitutes for kerosene in use today.
Individual households may of course deploy their own solar panels and become energy self-sufficient, as in the United States, but electricity will be unaffordable for the Below Poverty Line (BPL) households who are among the target market. Microgrids serving a cluster of homes would be more economical.
One thing is certain: There is little point in waiting for the larger grid to reach rural areas, as the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidutikaran Yogana (RGGVY) seeks to do. Connectivity with the larger grid is optional, not critical, thanks to the superior economics resulting from technological advances.
Induction cooking is faster, ecologically friendly, and more energy-efficient than gas or resistive electric coil-based cooking. It gives the user greater control over temperature, and is less likely to cause burns, fire, or injury.
At typically less than Rs. 3,000 for a 1,500-watt appliance, and frequently offered with the magnetic-base cooking utensils bundled in, induction cook-stoves are increasingly affordable. Why should they not be the preferred, dominant cooking method?
We do not generally think of electricity use for cooking for the rural poor in India. We implicitly assume that the primary use of electricity is for lights, fans, refrigeration, TV, entertainment, phone charging, and Internet access. Cooking belongs in this list too.
URBAN, RURAL NEEDS DIFFER
Given the current state of the grid, with load shedding for hours each day across India, induction cooking cannot substitute traditional cooking, especially in urban areas.
Families view it as a partial substitute for, and a complement to, LPG-based (liquefied petroleum gas) cooking. But the latter is increasingly expensive and scarce. People need insurance, a back-up solution in the kitchen. Induction cook-stoves in a plethora of models abound in appliance stores and sell briskly. They are a preferred gift at weddings and festivals.
While a greater cooking workhorse than the microwave oven, which is used mostly for warming, the utility of induction cookers can be affected by unreliable power supply in locations with electricity infrastructure.
But over 300 million Indians in rural areas have no electricity infrastructure. Could induction cooking substitute for firewood, powered by microgrids with solar as the mainstay?
I believe microgrid-based electricity can be both reliable and affordable. Will people buy induction cook-stoves and pay for the electricity? Can they afford it?
Is this a “Let them eat cake” solution? I believe people will buy and use both because the choice is between mindless labour and the opportunity that electricity affords to enhance incomes by expanding working hours, and engaging in new, paying work. It will end the tedium of daily firewood collection and indoor, air-pollution related deaths.
The missing piece is the microgrid, a compelling solution for un-electrified and under-served rural areas where the voters are.
(The author is visiting professor of strategy, IIM, Kozhikode.)