In praise of power

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Science  08 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6197, pp. 603
DOI: 10.1126/science.1259026

The importance of energy for development is underscored by the United Nations declaration of 2014 to 2024 as the Decade of Sustainable Energy for All. Among the goals is to provide universal access to electricity and clean cooking. Each laudable in itself, the two goals actually overlap.

About 2.8 billion people in developing countries rely on biomass for cooking, a number that has not changed in 25 years. The consequence of the resulting pollution is an estimated 3.9 million premature deaths annually. Over the decades, development organizations have focused on improving the efficiency of cookstoves that use local biomass fuels, and more recently on trying to reduce the resulting exposure to household air pollution. However, it is extremely difficult to burn biomass cleanly enough to meet guidelines to protect health.

“…providing electricity has important implications for global health and sustainable development.”


To supply the 1.4 billion who do not have access to electricity, most attention has focused on supporting relatively small, albeit critical, household uses, particularly lighting, but there are other important benefits. It is sometimes ignored that electricity is part of the solution for clean cooking. In the rich world, electric cooking devices include a wide range of appliances that are starting to appear in poor areas, such as rice cookers, water pots, microwaves, and specialized devices often tailored to local foods. These do common tasks conveniently and efficiently with no household pollution, and can be expected to become increasingly important as electrification progresses. Rice cooker production in China, for example, has grown annually at more than 20% over 15 years.

The availability of inexpensive portable induction cookstoves—a leapfrog technology that is safer and more efficient than traditional electric or gas stoves—is shifting the balance more toward electric cooking. This is occurring mainly in cities because of cost and power availability, but these constraints are changing as electrification expands and prices for induction stoves fall with scale. In India, more than 20 domestic and international companies are selling these stoves, and the projected growth rate is 35% a year for the next 5 years; in China, annual sales are more than 40 million.

More must be done to boost the growth rate of electric cooking, such as targeted subsidies and the development of appliances that are designed and priced for rural areas. Ecuador, for example, is working to install induction stoves in every household in the country. Along with advanced biomass combustion, biogas, liquefied petroleum gas, natural gas, and other clean fuels, electric cooking needs to be directly incorporated into modernization plans for the world's poorest people.

For those worried about CO2 emissions from power plants, consider that modest efficiency measures that reduce 3% of electric power consumption in rich countries (which are also largely supplied by coal) would “free” enough electricity to supply half of all biomass households with induction stoves. New supplies of electricity would produce far less than a 1% increase in global CO2 emissions.* It is not the cooking of the poor that threatens the climate.

Switching from solid to clean forms of energy can bring more health benefits than nearly any other modernization, including clean water and sanitation. It is too early to tell whether induction cooking can be successfully promoted in biomass-using rural areas, but not too early to predict that electric cooking appliances will be attractive to people as electricity becomes more reliable. Although in one sense the most mundane of energy issues, given that billions do not use modern fuels in their households and suffer great impacts on health, welfare, and the local environment as a result, finding solutions for providing electricity has important implications for global health and sustainable development.

  • * Calculations are based on 1000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year for an induction cookstove; International Energy Agency data on electricity demand for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; 0.8 kg of CO2 per kWh (India's average for the power sector); and 34 gigatons of CO2 produced in 2012, globally.

  • S. S. Lim et al., Lancet 380, 2224 (2010).

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