Fuel for thought: Cooking energy options

The government needs to come up with a policy road map that sets out a planned pathway over a desired period of time for the possible cooking energy options with regulatory and appropriate business models

The situation of energy use in terms of cooking is not promising in Nepal. According to the most recent statistics of the Central Bureau of Statistics, 64 per cent of the total households relies on firewood for cooking.  People still use cow dung and animal waste for cooking.

Use of electricity is almost negligible in meeting cooking energy demand. The penetration of clean cooking fuel is limited to around 25 per cent of the population, counting by the number of people using liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and biogas.

More and more people are using LPG for cooking these days; around 21 per cent of the total population, mostly in the urban areas that are connected through the roads, are using LPG for cooking. The exact number of biogas users is not known. It can be surmised that many biogas users’ now have started using LPG, as it is gradually becoming accessible and affordable.

That said, firewood still is the main source of energy for cooking in most parts of the country. People in the mountain regions are left with little choice when it comes to fuel for cooking due to high transport cost for LPG and absence of electricity connections. Cow dung is widely used in the Tarai region.

There are limited technological options available for clean cooking solutions worldwide. Nepal is no exception.

Biogas is a technology promoted and disseminated worldwide, especially in the developing countries as an intermediary solution. Biogas matches perfectly in a society that is largely based on agriculture. As the number of people dependent on agriculture is declining, and people have started moving towards the urban centres in search of better services, use of biogas has also come down.

Across the world, LPG and electricity are the most preferred fuels for cooking. Their use is, however, largely constrained by their costs.

Nepal has no fossil fuel resources and all petroleum products and LPG are imported. Hence, the use of LPG has a large economic cost to the economy where the balance of payment situation is negative.

There seems to be no concrete plan or policy in Nepal regarding which fuels and to what extent they should be promoted for meeting the cooking energy demands.

As part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the government has, however, some target to achieve by 2030. These targets are related to the use of solid fuels and LPG in cooking.

There were 74.7 per cent of households using solid fuels for cooking in 2015. The solid fuels comprise mainly firewood, animal waste and agriculture residues. The SDG goal is to reduce their use to 30 per cent by 2030. Likewise, use of LPG for cooking and heating is expected to reach 39 per cent of the population by 2030.

LPG is the most popular fuel for cooking in the world. Nearly half of the global demand for LPG is consumed in the residential sector for cooking. The government of Nepal has subsidised LPG for domestic users. So it is the most competitive fuel in urban areas.

LPG comes from natural gas processing and petroleum refining. Proven reserves of natural gas have been identified in the world and a long-term forecast suggests abundant supply. LPG is relatively clean, powerful and portable and has high energy value.

In developing countries, LPG competes with traditional fuels such as firewood. Traditional fuels are often freely available or purchased in small quantities. Switching from traditional fuel to LPG is generally constrained by its initial cost for buying cylinders, which often cost more than the gas inside.

Switching from traditional fuel to LP gas is also constrained by the availability, accessibility, awareness and costs.

According to statistics, three billion people – or more than 40 per cent of the world’s population – do not have access to clean cooking fuels and technologies. Household air pollution from burning biomass for cooking and heating is responsible for some four million deaths a year, with women and children at the greatest risk.

According to the World LPG Association, cooking by using 180-kilowatt hour electricity is equal to cooking by 13 kilograms of LPG and 91 kilograms of firewood. If we convert these in the local market price, there is not much difference between using LPG and electricity for cooking. LPG used in the domestic sector is subsidised and the cost of electricity is higher to the users.

A general technological ladder includes efficient biomass cooking stoves, biogas, LPG and electricity in cooking.

As Nepal has huge hydropower potential, electricity must be the most preferred fuel for cooking. However, the government should come up with a fixed term (say ten years) policy to better enable the people to use LP gas for cooking.  LPG should be the fuel in transition before the country becomes ready to move towards replacing other fuels for cooking by electricity and other renewables.

Therefore, the government needs to come up with a policy road map that sets out a planned pathway over a desired period of time for the possible cooking energy options with regulatory and appropriate business models. The cooking energy options also include efficient biomass stoves (including the biogas), LPG as fuel in transition, and electricity as the ultimate fuel.

Adhikari is an energy economist.