Nepali kitchen has again become the new development battleground with the campaign to promote electric cooking. Again, because the older socio-environmental battles of the 1970s and 80s had waned, sidelined by the seductive success of fossil fuel cooking, first with kerosene and now ubiquitously with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Indeed, in urban areas, women of my wife’s generation had rarely used firewood for cooking except for the occasional picnic or during the Indian economic blockade of 1989 and 2015. Though that hardship and energy insecurity led to a revived interest in smoke-free, fuel-efficient briquettes, the romance did not last once the blockade was lifted (although rancour against India lives on deep in their psyche!)
Large-scale development interventions into the Nepali kitchen began in the early 1970s, first with environmental concerns about deforestation and then health hazard especially for women from indoor air pollution. Both these worries saw salvation in the smokeless chulo and biogas: they increased energy efficiency from some 10% for open hearth chulos to almost triple that requiring households to burn only half or even a third of the firewood they normally burned; and homes adopting them became smoke-free improving heart-lung health immensely.
Unfortunately, these technologies, unlike kerosene and LPG, were rural-friendly and not as appropriate for urban areas for reasons of architectural space, the obvious impossibility of keeping cows and buffaloes, and the cost of transporting firewood. Even in rural areas, they were also seduced out of the market by the less labour-consuming kerosene and LPG, since briquette making or even biogas plant upkeep required collecting and processing messy charcoal and cow dung. Furthermore, the energy efficiency of LPG cooking at 40% was higher than smokeless chulos by a third more!
The new cooking technology challenging this fossil fuel domination in Nepali kitchens is the electric cooker: infrared ones with energy efficiency of 70% and induction cookers at an astounding 84% (meaning that much of the energy goes into actual cooking and not in heating the air around it), double that of gas cookers and more than three times that of smokeless chulos. Furthermore, given that this energy is Nepali hydropower and not imported fossil fuel, climate activists and development agencies see this as the Holy Grail to counter global warming. Their electric cooking campaign is backed by other activist concerns as well, such as Nepal’s unsustainable petroleum imports that constitute over 200% of its total goods export! And for average Kathmandu households almost 70% of their total energy use is for cooking, bulk of it from LPG.
The other major driver behind this push for electric cooking is that, with Nepal heading for significant surplus in hydropower generation – some 4500 MW of new generation are expected to be added to the national grid by 2026/27 even as demand hovers around 1500 to 2000 MW (on a per capita basis, the lowest in South Asia!) – there is an urgent need to find new electricity absorption possibilities. While India has a large demand for electricity, it does not have an easily accessible open market: electricity in India is a tightly regulated strategic commodity with high transaction costs for market access. As a result, many in the activist community argue, as does an USAID report, that if Nepal exported electricity to India, it would earn only 4 to 6 cents only whereas, if it used it was used within Nepal, the benefit to Nepal would be 86 cents!
While these are wonderful reasons to champion electric cooking in Nepal, ground reality, however, indicates that the path ahead for this technological transition is going to be far from smooth. A consultative workshop organized on 9th August by the Alternative Energy Promotion Center with GiZ’s Energizing Development (EnDev) program brought to the fore many of these difficulties, ranging from consumer risks to anomalies in government policy. (GiZ and its predecessor GTZ have been the only aid agency seriously pursuing and promoting alternative energy pathways, from small hydro to community electricity, biogas and many other possibilities.)
The world of technological artifacts is littered with clever relics that found no takers and were lucky if even preserved in a museum. Jung Bahadur, after visiting England in early 1850s, brought the first steam engine pump to irrigate the tars of Kaski and Lamjung but the country had no technician capable of operating it, and it rusted away in a Rana palace godown. A similar story lies behind the first trucks brought to Nepal when the Tribhuban highway was being constructed in the middle of the last century: Nepalis then did not know how to drive trucks and the need was met by Sikh refugees from Pakistani Punjab, forming the nucleus of Nepal’s small Sikh community. That induction cookers could go the way of Jung’s steam pump in many Nepali households (as did briquette burning chulos) is the reason serious attention should be paid, while prompting new artifacts like electric cookers, to the sociology and the social carriers behind the technology.
As described by two electronic repair technicians during the consultative workshop, the majority of repair works they carry out are related to integrated circuits and other fine electronic components blowing out because of improper use of induction cookers. Even in educated households (including that of this electrical engineer!) cooks, once cooking is done, do not put off the cooker by pressing the correct button on the cooker panel but do so flipping off the main switch. It cuts off electricity completely, shuts down the cooling fan prematurely thus heating and damaging the sensitive circuits. In villages without the backup of even simple electronic repair facilities, families could thus quickly find their induction cooker investments becoming junk. What this proves is that behavioural changes – from dealing with the new technology to the type of food one can or should cook and for how long (try not to cook sel-roti or biriyani on an induction cooker say the repairmen) – are a prerequisite for the successful induction cooker adoption.
As the philosopher of technology Brian Arthur describes it, successful technologies are combinations of older technologies tweaked at one or two critical junctures that succeed in the market because they satisfy emerging social needs that their old predecessors could not. And they do it against great odds of technological lock-ins of old infrastructure that require expensive remodeling. No better example exists than the structural lock-in that the country’s biggest electricity utility Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) is enmeshed in. Right from its earlier incarnations such as the Bijuli Adda of the Ranas to the Electricity Corporation till the 1980s, its primary mission was, and remains, electricity for lighting, not for powering productive machines. As a result, rural electrification and distribution network even in cities and peri-urban areas has been done with this objective for low Wattage light bulbs through household meters of only 5 Amperes. If a dozen households with that kind of electricity supply decide to cook their daal-bhaat at the same time in electric cookers, lunch and dinner time being the same for most, entire villages would have a blackout!
The problem gets more intractable as one moves higher up the policy chain. Nepal’s finance ministry that regulates foreign aid, indeed the entire Nepal government machinery, is fixated on tax and other revenues emanating from sales and procurements, not on the larger economic benefits accruing from sensible economic policies such as replacing imported fossil fuel consumption with Nepali hydropower. Indeed, tax on fossil fuel forms a major chunk of Nepal government revenue income it is loathe to forego, which is why it imposes heavy tax on electric vehicles and relents only after widespread protests. This is a point proved by the provision to “increase the sales of electric vehicles” in Nepal’s Nationally Determined Contribution to climate mitigation. It should instead have been “so many passenger-kilometers of public travel by diesel/petrol vehicles replaced by electric ones” that should have been government policy.
The same story is repeating itself with electric cookers. The official target is to distribute over half a million electric cook stoves after central purchase that reeks of “the name of the game is procurement”. It has bedeviled many a development project in the past with expensive equipment rusting in hospitals, labs and government-run corporations! Instead, procurement in small numbers should have been left to local outfits with strong governments monitoring of quality and performance. And the latter should have been done by measuring the actual number of LPG cylinders replaced in households with the introduction of electric cookers. Without this, the entire campaign runs the risk of a whimpering expiration.
The final question that should be asked is whether all Nepali kitchens should go massively electric. The answer is definitely NO. Electricity is too high quality an energy that must be used for higher end activities other than cooking: one can cook with wood or biogas but they cannot run the internet or factories which requires quality electricity. Fuelwood will remain aplenty in village Nepal that must be properly harvested via community forestry, its use improved via briquettes and smokeless chulos especially in tea shops and communal kitchens. Not using it so would not serve the battle against climate change as the biomass would rot and emit methane/CO2 anyway. Some electricity cooking is needed to reduce fossil fuel usage, but that should be part of a larger package of food processing that should include refrigerators in kitchens to prevent food loss which is the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases!
Let us go for a sane national energy mix, not narrow misplaced missionary zeal!