Career: Research and Development Scientist | SunEdison | Pasadena, Texas, USA
Energy Poverty in Rural India: Is Modern Technology a Remedy?
According to the International Energy Agency, “Without access to modern, commercial energy, poor countries can be trapped in a vicious circle of poverty, social instability and underdevelopment.” India is one of the major countries that are going to face the challenge of providing energy to a rapidly growing population and economy. The power sector is an important ingredient in the country’s development, but as it now exists, this sector serves only a small portion of the country’s population. The government’s emphasis has been on powering industrial, commercial, and urban growth, with little talk about how to bring modern power to the villages that still contain 70% of India’s population. There is a clear disconnect between energy policy and some truly pressing energy problems.
In developing countries, just as the great majority of people without access to water live in rural areas, so do most of the 1.6 billion people without electricity. One important way to meet the energy needs of poor rural areas is through practical, small-scale efforts involving improved cook stoves, mini and micro hydropower projects, and other small renewable energy sources such as wind–powered pumps for groundwater. Massive hydropower projects that feed transmission lines headed to mines, industries, and big cities all too seldom provide benefits to rural people.
In India, around 7 million urban households also do not have access to these innovative, yet practical small scale technologies and around 16 million people rely on traditional forms of fuel for cooking. Today there are few programs to address their needs. Programs that focus only on rural electrification and energy supply in rural areas neglect rapidly expanding urban populations lacking access to electricity and clean energy. These populations will only grow more quickly in the future, and ignoring them can be a source of major problems.
A major issue for both urban and rural settings in India is the widespread use of environmentally unfriendly cook stoves. In reality, the burning of biomass (e.g., wood gathered from the countryside) will continue throughout the developing world for some time to come. Hence there is a great need to find ways to consume wood fuels in more efficient and sustainable ways. Over the long run this should not be taken to preclude the use of wind power, solar thermal power (sunlight used to heat air or water), photovoltaic cells that produce electricity directly from sunlight, and small-scale hydropower. However, in the short term, the problem of how to increase the efficiency and reduce the very harmful environmental effects of widely used cook stoves remains.
Burning of biomass in the traditional stoves emits a large amount of fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and many organic compounds. Exposure to the smoke from these ancient stoves causes a decrease in lung function, increases the severity of lung diseases, and aggravates heart conditions, asthma, pneumonia, and bronchitis. The carbon monoxide emitted also causes heart pain. Long term exposure may lead to chronic bronchitis, nasal, throat, lung, blood, and lymph system cancer.
An ongoing field sampling project that I and others are conducting in rural India indicates average emissions from traditional stoves that are much higher than the National Ambient Air Quality Standard. This problem appears daunting, but practical and financially sustainable solutions exist.
In addition to raising awareness of cooking practices, health impact, clean fuel, and the importance of kitchen location and ventilation, it is possible to greatly reduce exposure to harmful smoke by developing improved cook stoves and solar cooking devices.
Concerted efforts by governments, policymakers, the private sector, and NGOs, coupled with significant local participation, have already produced some impressive results, but much more can be done.
What are the World Bank and governments doing about energy access in developing countries? In recent years the Bank’s work in energy has largely focused on making existing energy supply and consuming industries more efficient, opening them up to competition, and encouraging private sector participation. Addressing energy and environmental issues associated with cook stoves in India must be part of the effort to address this very large and complex problem. While it may be hoped that biomass based cook stoves will be replaced by cleaner, more efficient means in the long run, there is clearly a pressing need to deal with today’s massive problems now.