Tag Archives: energy

Thermal Energy Services and Technology Neutrality

Dr Binu Parthan from Sustainable Energy Associates writes on technology neutrality in thermal energy services, and how this can approach can be used to further access to clean thermal energy.

When the STEPs project was conceived in late 2012 and early 2013, one of the key aspects we emphasised was the principle of technology neutrality. We thought it important to include all possible energy conversion and end-use technologies that can provide thermal energy for cooking, space heating and other household, commercial and industrial uses. We were always clear about the role of LPG as a thermal energy fuel and technology to be included. This was also one of the arguments we used to encourage a technology neutral approach to thermal energy to the projects eventual funders DfID and EPSRC. Once the research project started in early 2014 the role of electric cooking also emerged slowly as an option worth considering. During the global survey we carried out during 2014-15 it emerged that electricity was already being used for thermal purposes by some practitioners in several operating contexts. In early 2015, I visited the Mekar Sari cooperative at the Cinta Mekar 5P project in Indonesia to understand the workings of the 5P model – a blog about this visit available here. During this visit I came across the extensive use of electric rice cookers which were being used alongside LPG. Almost all houses in Cinta Mekar was using efficient rice cookers to prepare rice and keep it warm.

A Household at Cinta Mekar, Indonesia Cooking with an Electric Rice Cooker (Credits: Sustainable Energy Associates)

The questions around electric cooking started recurring again during 2015. In mid-2015, at the Asia Clean Energy Forum at ADB in Manila where we presented the STEPs model, there were some interesting discussions about the need to include all possible technologies for cooking, including LPG and electricity. Later in 2015, DfID and Evidence on Demand published three interesting reports on electric cooking using solar photovoltaics and batteries in the African context. One of these publications (Leach and Oduro, 2015) also highlighted that majority of cooking is being using electricity in advanced African countries such as South Africa. Later in 2015 while I was in Nepal I realised that electric cooking option was already promoted by Intermediate Technology (Now renamed Practical Action) over 25 years ago in the 1990s with micro-hydro projects in a village called Ghandruk. The project used electric storage cookers – Bijuli Dekhchis for electric cooking in Ghandruk. The experience with electric cooking in Nepal did not turn out to be a success and perhaps was an idea ahead of time. My efforts to contact the people who ran the project to learn from their experience with the technology wasn’t successful as many of them had moved on or retired.

Rice Cooker and Electric Kettle being used by Households at Barpak in Nepal (Credits: Bir Bahadur Ghale)

There has also been questions raised regarding the health benefits of efficient cookstoves such as the reduction of pulmonary diseases due to reduced indoor emissions from improved cookstoves. LPG based cooking offers significant indoor emission reductions and electric cooking produces no indoor pollution at all. A publication in the Lancet in late 2016, which was highlighted by the BBC seemed to indicate no significant health benefits as a result of efficient biomass stoves (Mortimer. 2017).  I also see a renewed interest in electric cooking again especially with the availability of electromagnetic induction cookers which are available at lower prices of about US$ 20 in many locations in the developing world. Efficiency of rice cookers have also improved and many of the efficient rice cookers now use electro-magnetic induction. Induction cookers are about 14% more efficient than ordinary electric cookers and are increasingly available globally at competitive prices.

In this context, I heard about Bir Bahadur Ghale, owner of Barpak Rural Electrification Pvt. Ltd in Nepal – a community owned mini-grid operated by micro-hydro. After several efforts and with support from Dipti Vaghela at the Micro-Hydro Power Network, I was able to meet with Bir in December 2016.  The experience of Barpak Micro Hydro with electric cooking has been quite impressive. The mini-grid powered by hydro has offered a lower off-peak tariff from 8 AM to 5 PM encouraging households to cook with electricity during this period. These efforts resulted in about 2/3rd of the 1200 households served by the 133 kW hydro system now using electric cooking during the day. In addition the Barpak hydro also offers lower tariffs to industries during the day time, to encourage the use of electricity for productive uses. These efforts have resulted in the utilisation levels in the Barpak hydro to increase to 47% or 0.47 Plant Load Factor (PLF) which is almost 3 times the levels seen in similar hydro powered mini-grid systems in Nepal and elsewhere. Bir believes that the convenience of electric cooking, low-cost of cookers, reduction in drudgery of collecting firewood and the low off-peak tariffs offered by the Barpak hydro has been the reason behind the uptake of electric cooking. I believe this is a good approach which is valid in many locations around the world which addresses indoor air pollution, deforestation, provide a convenient and modern cooking alternative to households, especially women and improve the business viability of mini-grid operations. I am also beginning to notice more and more electric cooking appliances as I travel and recently in Laos I even see a shop which is specialising in electric cooking. So this market segment is getting quite interesting indeed with more product offerings that are affordable.

Electric Cooking Appliances for sale in Vientiane, Laos (Credits: Sustainable Energy Associates)

Also in a recent visit in summer of 207 to a village in the Ayeyarwady delta in Myanmar electrified by a gasifier powered mini-grid, I was able to see the widespread use of electric rice cookers and electric frying pans on a regular basis in homes. What was interesting was that despite the high local electricity tariffs at $ 0.44/kWh, the households preferring electric cooking to biomass based cooking.

Electric Cooking in rural Myanmar (Credits: Sustainable Energy Associates)

As more un-electrified areas get electrified and as cost of cooking with firewood and charcoal increases, we would expect LPG and electricity to increasingly displace biomass stoves. Where conditions for promotion of LPG exist such as local availability of natural gas, existence of LPG distribution networks, government programmes that offset the cost of access (like in Indonesia) etc. we are likely to see increased uptake of LPG. However many countries to do have domestic natural gas reserves and establishing a nation-wide LPG distribution network is capital intensive and government finances are often stretched. Therefore there is a tendency for LPG distribution networks to be limited to urban areas where there is a high concentration of users. Electric induction cooking can be an alternative in rural and decentralised areas which are electrified where products such as induction cooktops and electric rice cookers are available in the markets. With the right regulatory instruments that ensure tariffs that encourage electric cooking and electric space heating and with efficient and low-cost induction cooking devices, the share of electric cooking in developing countries will increase. While this does not call for shifting the focus away from efficient biomass cookstoves, the option of electric cooking needs to be in the menu of options for practitioners, development agencies and enterprises active in the energy access space. We will also need to think in terms of programme frameworks, financing, policy & regulation that promotes efficient electric cooking alongside LPG, efficient biomass stoves and other options.

Dr. Binu Parthan


Matthew Leach and Richard Oduro 2015, Preliminary design and analysis of a proposed solar and battery electric cooking concept: costs and pricing, Evidence on Demand, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.12774/eod_cr.november2015.leachm

Mortimer, K et al, 2017, A cleaner burning biomass-fuelled cookstove intervention toprevent pneumonia in children under 5 years old in rural Malawi (the Cooking and Pneumonia Study): a cluster randomised controlled trial, Lancet, 389: 167–75


The recent evolution of China’s National Biogas Program and lessons learned for application in other regions

This blog aims to describe in brief the history of China’s national biogas program and its transition phases in both the 1980s (moving to prefabricated plastic digesters) and more recently in promoting household scale systems, as well as how this program compares to other government-scale programs in household and centralised biodigesters. [1] [2] [3]

The Chinese National Biogas Program is one of the most cited examples of a successful biogas dissemination program at a government scale. The first biodigesters started appearing in China in the 1920s, and from the 1970s onwards the government began introducing household-scale centralised biodigester systems for rural communities under the predecessor of the current program. The first major transition in the program took place in the 1980s. Previously to this, most biodigesters in the country were constructed on-site from brick or concrete, however this period saw the introduction of what are known in the country as “commercialised digesters”. This covers three constructions of prefabricated biodigesters. Fibreglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) digesters began appearing in the 1980s themselves, whilst so-called plastic soft (PS) and plastic hard (PH) digesters came into the market in the mid-90s. These digesters offered significant commercial and operational advantages, being able to be constructed at a central site and then disseminated, as well as being more reliable, having lower maintenance requirements and a better performance overall.

xia zuzhang china biogas graph

Source: Adapted from Zuzhang (2014) Domestic biogas in a changing China: Can biogas still meet the energy needs of China’s rural households, http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/16553IIED.pdf

As of 2011, 41.68 million households were using biogas services through the National Biogas Program. As of 2010 production capacity for the three previously-described prefabricated digester types was approximately 2,500,000 per year, and as of 2014, approximately 50 million households had been reached with biogas supply, using over 16 million cubic metres of biogas per year [4]. At least one prefabricated digester manufacturer exists in each Chinese province, over 100 in total. These digesters are also marketed across South-East Asia, and also recently to Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, there exist a number of present challenges to the continued development of the Program. Current funding for biogas digester construction predominantly comes from state, regional and government sources in the form of a subsidy for rural households. Rural households are expected to contribute, but this varies widely from just the labour costs, to 50-70% of the total installation costs. Some funding criteria stipulated by the government also exclude large proportions of the rural population: for a village to qualify for biodigester subsidies for example, at least 70% of the households must own sufficient livestock. This funding regime, as it exists, makes no provision for servicing and maintenance, and whilst biogas service cooperatives are beginning to appear in rural areas, no effort has been made to assess the current proportion of functioning digesters nor repair any identified non-functioning systems at a local government level.

Possibly the largest constraint to the continued operation and growth of the program is internal migration in China. The rural population is falling significantly as urban development continues, with huge number of rural people moving to urban areas for greater employment prospects and wages. This also contributes to biodigester effectiveness; with traditional animal husbandry industries giving way to larger, centralised livestock farming, feedstock regimes are decreasing in suitability in rural China for household-scale digesters, presenting an ongoing constraint to the operation of the program.

– Xavier Lemaire & Daniel Kerr, UCL Energy Institute

[1] Raha, Mahanta & Clarke (2014): http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2013.12.048

[2] Groenendaal & Gehua (2010): http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.energy.2009.05.028

[3] Deng et al. (2014): http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2014.04.031

[4] IRENA (2014) Renewable Energy Prospects: China. Available at http://irena.org/remap/IRENA_REmap_China_report_2014.pdf

Why Isn’t There Greater Adoption of Biogas Technologies in Sub-Saharan Africa?

There are issues surrounding the lack of willingness to finance biodigester projects at all scales in many SSA countries particularly at the household level, lack of financial arrangements for poorer households where technology is most viable, prevailing climatic conditions beneficial but socio-economic conditions (particularly availability of feedstock and financial capacity of rural users) can be problematic.

Household-scale biodigesters can be an effective solution to providing thermal energy services to rural poor communities in the developing world. However, successful examples of biodigester programs in the past at a government or development-agency scale have mostly been confined to China, India and South-East Asia more widely. Notably, there has been a distinct lack of experience of successful biogas projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. The STEPs research project aims to address some of the reasons behind this, and propose potential solutions.

In theory, the prevailing conditions in Sub-Saharan African countries are mostly beneficial for the introduction of biogas digesters. Climatic conditions, on the whole, are suitably warm, with minimal cold periods to impact digester efficiency. In addition, target users are in abundance in rural areas, if considering the local feedstock regime. Small cattle farming is prevalent in a number of SSA countries, and subsistence farmers in rural areas often keep a small head of cattle. Given also the distributed nature of rural populations in a number of SSA countries (particularly, for example, in Eastern South Africa), household-scale biodigesters are an excellent solution for providing thermal energy services to households.

Sovacool Kryman & Smith 2015

Potential uses for biogas and waste products. Sovacool, Kryman & Smith (2015) Scaling and commercializing mobile biogas systems in Kenya: A qualitative pilot study. Renewable Energy, Vol. 75, pp 115-125, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.renene.2014.10.070

However, the lack of successful experience of biogas dissemination programs or businesses can be attributed to a number of factors, first and foremost of which is the cost of biodigesters (ranging from US$30 for a rudimentary drum-type system to over US$700 for a larger household system) [1] [2], and the lack of credit facilities/service regimes to enable access to the technology for the poorest consumers. Biodigester technology still represents a significant upfront cost to a typical rural household, and micro-credit services for clean energy technologies are still in their infancy in SSA countries, with some successful experiences in countries like Kenya or South Africa for solar home lighting or electricity systems in Kenya for example, but little widespread knowledge.

This lack of end-user credit is mirrored in a general lack of energy service companies or institutions offering biodigester services, with the cost issue again a driving factor behind this. Given how critical the maintenance factor is in biodigester installations (an issue which will be explored in the next blog), this lack of service companies, integrating credit or fee-for-service business models with a maintenance and servicing regime, has hampered uptake significantly in the region. The final negative factor is in fact the converse of an advantage: whilst some households will have suitable feedstock availability, compared to average heads of livestock or agricultural waste availability in South-East Asia, SSA has a much lower proportion of households with viable feedstock availabilities. Targeting consumers and areas where feedstock regimes are good is a critical step in ensuring the success of programs or business around biogas digesters in SSA.[2]

The next post in this series will investigate maintenance of biodigesters, and the necessity of maintenance and service arrangements with end-users to ensure efficient and successful operation of biodigesters.

– Xavier Lemaire & Daniel Kerr, UCL Energy Institute

[1] Hojnacki et al, MIT (2011) Biodigester Global Case Studies. Available at: https://colab.mit.edu/sites/default/files/D_Lab_Waste_Biodigester_Case_Studies_Report.pdf

[2] Raha, Mahanta and Clarke (2014) The implementation of decentralised biogas plants in Assam, NE India: The impact and effectiveness of the National Biogas and Manure Management Programme. Energy Policy, Vol. 68, pp. 80-91

Energy for Development Case Study – Replication of Rural Decentralised Off-grid Electricity Generation through Technology and Business Innovation

Prof. AbuBakr Bahaj and Rucha Amin from Southampton University write on the University’s Energy for Development (E4D) project, providing renewable and reliable power to rural Kenyan communities.

Reliable and affordable sources of energy are fundamental not only for wellbeing, but also for economic growth and poverty reduction. Rural communities that do not have access to the national electricity network are also deprived of the associated benefits in health and quality of life provided by electrical services such as lighting and refrigeration. Fulfilling the energy needs of developing countries without compromising the environment is a challenge requiring imaginative policies and methods.

The approach adopted by E4D in Kitonyoni, Kenya focussed on a replicable, community based solar mini-grid electrification system aimed at invigorating village trading centres and promoting business innovation. The core of the project is based on a 13.5 kWp solar photovoltaic (PV) array with integrated rainwater harvesting system coupled to a mini-grid. The latter provides power to all trading centre buildings (shops, cafes, schools, health centres, churches etc.) and local businesses that in turn are able to provide charging facilities for electrical appliances, such as LED lanterns and mobile phones, to customers.

A major focus of this project has been to establish an economically sustainable system whereby the community contributes to the project and is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the plant. Income is generated for the cooperative which is also set up as an energy supply company (ESCO) through membership fees, local sales of electricity and share ownership. This income covers the running costs of the project, provides finances to the community as well as contributing to the recovery of the capital cost of the project.

Soton E4D ImageThe E4D project solar installation in Kitonyoni, Kenya. All images Sustainable Energy Research Group, University of Southampton

Since the installation in September 2012, there are clear indications that the trading centre in Kitonyoni is being transformed with land prices increasing, a number of new buildings constructed, new businesses opening and existing business owners reporting profit increases.  There has also been a marked improvement in healthcare provisions with a newly donated, fully electrified maternity clinic in operation. Furthermore, one replication project has already been carried out in Bambouti, Cameroon with a third installation in Oloika, Kenya planned for later this year.

For more information: http://www.energyfordevelopment.net/

– AbuBakr Bahaj and Rucha Amin, Southampton University

The Woman and Child in Bondo and Modern Thermal Energy Access

She was weak and frail, with her baby on her back and a large and unusually long log of wood on her head. You could sense that she was struggling to move under the weight of the log on her head and the baby on her back, but perhaps the promise of the large firewood and promise of less trips to gather wood egged her on. The water channel on her path was shallow but the fall was very steep, probably 40 m or more, she would have crossed the channel quite easily without the load. She jumped across, didn’t make it, slipped but fortunately held on to the brickwork and then pulled herself and her baby out and moved on. I had my heart in my mouth for a few seconds and was greatly relieved that she and her baby was safe. The women with her baby (see picture) could have easily slipped and dropped 40 m down with grave consequences.

This is a scene I witnessed two weeks ago at Bondo in Southern Malawi –one of African countries where over 90% of the population lack energy access. Several millions of women in Sub-saharan Africa and South Asia make such risky trips every day to gather firewood, twigs and shrubs for household thermal energy use, often putting themselves at physical risk. Such trips often expose these women to rough terrain, natural elements and attacks from animals and sometimes fellow humans.  Most of these women then cook food or boil water using inefficient traditional stoves or keep the fire burning through the night to keep themselves warm or wild animals away. These traditional thermal energy use results in major indoor air pollution which slowly kills them and their children through lower respiratory diseases. So women are exposed to health risks during the collection and use of traditional biomass for thermal energy.

Against this backdrop, last week, I was pleased to learn from the launch of the decade of SE4All from New York that the first two years of the decade will be dedicated to ‘Energy-Women-Children-Health’ nexus. This is a very welcome development and I applaud the SE4All leadership and partners for the attention to this space. However to be able to effectively address health related challenges of women and children in areas without energy access, electrification alone is not sufficient and providing modern and thermal energy to rural women is central to this issue. Providing modern thermal energy needs to go beyond a product delivery approach which often focuses only on efficient cook-stoves. While energy for cooking is important, hot water for sanitation and space heating are also quite important. While biomass – solid and liquid fuels, electricity and solar thermal could all play a role, Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) can also play a supplementary role. The business of providing thermal energy as a service is likely to a low-return, long-term business and may need to be combined with electricity or agro businesses to increase viability. There are also important roles that public sector, private sector, Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) and the international community should play. Solutions will need to go beyond technology to address, financing, supply chain, institutional arrangements as well as policy and regulations. So all of us need to chip at this problem from all possible angles and the attention and support in this space in the next two years due to SE4All is very welcome.

As for the anonymous woman and her child, Peter Killick of Mulanje Energy Generation Agency, the micro-grid electricity service provider for Bondo who witnessed the scene with me, kindly offered to put a footbridge across the channel. While I am relieved that her future journeys to gather fuel will be safer, I hope to be back in Bondo in the future to see that she has access to cleaner energy technologies and fuel supply at her doorstep.

Dr. Binu Parthan, SEA

The Woman and the Child at Bondo

The Woman and Child in Bondo. Credit: Sustainable Energy Associates

How to Evaluate the Impact of Research Projects?

Xavier Lemaire and Daniel Kerr from University College London attended the first annual workshop of the Understanding Sustainable Energy Solutions (USES) Network, held at the Wellcome Trust, London, UK on the 8th July 2014. The workshop was designed to give insights into how best to achieve impact and engagement with beneficiaries in the USES Network projects, which cover a wide variety of aspects of low carbon energy research in developing countries, from institutional networking assistance and business support, to technology dissemination for thermal and electrical energy, to institutional and residential energy efficiency. A number of sessions took place, with an aim to convey insights into how funders and research users engage with academic institutions and organisations conducting research; theories of change and the impacts, both potential and real, that past projects have achieved/failed to achieve; and how best to plan for and assess the impact of the USES projects, and what shared experiences could be brought to bear for the good of all involved projects.

The day began with three presentations on impact, engagement and theories of change. Ed Brown from Loughborough University, in conjunction with Alison Mohr from the University of Nottingham, led off with an introduction to the Participatory Impact Assessment (PIPA) methodology. Adrian Ely from the STEPs Centre at the University of Sussex, and Duncan Green from Oxfam also contributed via video presentations.

Of particular interest was the PIPA methodology for assessing impact, which seeks to identify the inter-linkages in the goals and priorities of all actors in research projects, for example funding agencies, research institutions, local and national governments, community organisations, NGOs and the wider population. Through identifying the synergies in these groups’ priorities and needs, the methodology hopes to provide a clearer insight into the potential impacts of research projects, and the methods needed to achieve them.

The following session saw a number of representatives from the Department for International Development and the Department for Energy and Climate Change, as well as the UKCDS and the Knowledge Transfer Network, conduct a roundtable discussion on the experiences of funding agencies and other organisations in engaging with research and researchers. Broad themes included the importance of quantitative measures of impact and results in the view of the funders and their objectives, as well as highlighting the divergence on timescales for results between public sector projects and research projects.

The whole-room discussions sessions that followed, as well as in the case study presentations, brought forward a number of recurring points. The importance of stakeholder engagement from the very beginning of a project  in achieving impact in research projects, particularly in developing country contexts, was consistently highlighted as a key factor. In-depth knowledge of local country contexts, as well as sectoral expertise in key project members, was identified as a useful factor in achieving project impacts. These factors, along with the targeting of invitations to actors based on their expertise, were also identified to be critical in the creation, funding and initial engagement of projects.

The final session focused on the proposed framework for reporting project impacts to DFID, and how shared experiences within the USES project could help to facilitate greater impacts for all involved projects. Finally, the day concluded with contributions from participants on how the USES network can support the involved projects, predominantly focusing around networking via social media and web networking spaces provided through the USES portal on the LCEDN website.

LCEDN Meeting July 2014Roundtable discussion at LCEDN USES Network Meeting, July 2014

– Xavier Lemaire & Daniel Kerr, UCL Energy Institute

Side-Stepping the Energy Ladder

For decades now there has been talk of a hierarchy of energy use or ‘ladder’ which defined levels of development as well personal aspirations. Occupying the bottom of this ladder were primary fuels such as biomass, dung, etc. Moving towards the middle we had kerosene and LPG which were considered ‘modern fuels’ because of their comparative convenience as well as fairly sophisticated refining process associated with hydro-carbon fuels. And of course, at the top of the ladder was electricity, the most versatile and modern energy source of them all.

There have been many articles published about the energy ladder, some supportive of its clear albeit simplistic representation of how households progress in terms of fuel use while others have been more critical altogether of its rigidity and inability to accommodate variables such as culture,  differing socio-economic and geographic contexts. How this is playing out in South Africa today is quite interesting. Looking at South Africa’s energy policy, it is highly orientated towards developing the ‘top of the ladder’ options. Policy and regulations abound when it comes to nuclear, coal, large scale renewable, LPG gas, etc. But there is little regulatory interest when it comes to wood. Perhaps its posturing (Africa’s largest and most sophisticated economy requires nuclear not biomass regulations) or perhaps that’s the reality (the energy service activities are at the top of the ladder).

Despite this there are a number of inconsistencies emerging;

  • Electricity is becoming increasingly expensive (above inflation increases for over 5 years already with about the same to come) so many poorer households are having to ‘back-switch’ to LPG and paraffin.
  • Many middle class households that have been electrified for decades are opting to cook on LPG gas (on stainless steel hobs for sure) and heat their houses in winter using wood (up-market fireplaces).
  • Millions of households still cook with wood although they have access to electricity. The energy source is simply uneconomic to support the full range of thermal services households require.
  • High oil prices (think kerosene and LPG) and increasing electricity prices are putting strain on the ability of people to use fuels which they have access to. Access and utilisation have become two different issues
  • Political promises which have for decades reinforced the energy ladder now cannot be met as lower-income households cannot afford to utilise these fuels for all services required.
  • Department of Rural Development and Land Affairs has put out a tender for improved cookstoves, a technology that has never appealed to the Department of Energy because of the ‘poverty’ stigma associated with wood. Or, “people did not struggle [against Apartheid] to use wood” the former Minister of Energy [Dipuo Peters] once said to this blogger [African Minister’s Meeting, Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, 17th September 2011].

Without significant subsidies, the lower-income households will find ascending the so called energy ladder increasingly difficult to achieve. The progressive notion of the ladder had much to do with the assumption that it was simply a matter of time before households, given broader economic growth, would progress up the ladder. However such economic growth hasn’t quite materialised and the associated costs of using these fuels has become increasingly exorbitant. Perhaps the middle-class should be used to assist in de-stigmatising the use of biomass fuels and the like which will at least assist in addressing some of the indignity associated with being trapped at the ‘bottom of the ladder’. Third generation improved cookstoves instead of open fires should go a long way in terms of doing just that.

– Robert Aitken, Restio Energy