Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cooking with LPG: Climate and Poverty Issues

What is the largest improved stove program in the developing world? The answer may surprise you. It is the Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) stove. The use of LPG worldwide has been growing for many years. It is not a renewable fuel like biomass energy, but it is clean burning and provides much greater efficiency than even the best improved biomass stoves. For those not familiar with LPG, it is quite similar to propane.
Retail LPG Use in India in Millions: Industry Source

LPG is quite commonly used in urban areas of developing countries and is becoming increasingly common in rural areas. In India alone since 1985 the petroleum industry reports that over 100 million households have switched from other cooking sources to LPG. Today even close to 20% of rural household are using LPG mostly for quick heating such as water boiling, and this amounts to about 30 million households. Not only is LPG subsidized in India, but it has become more widely available over the years.

India has had an aggressive LPG promotion campaign for years and just recently announced that there will be a program to provide free stoves to households below the poverty line. The subsidies no doubt are expensive for the government and as the program continues to expand one can question whether such subsidies are justifiable given the ready acceptance of LPG by the mostly high and middle income consumers. But one also might just imagine the positive health impacts of the widespread substitution of LPG for fuelwood. Cooking with LPG gives off minimum pollution and alleviates indoor air pollution.

LPG Cooking in Hyderbad India: by D. Barnes
One little understood fact is that LPG is used mainly by middle to high income families, but it also has indirect impacts on poor urban households who do not even use it. Why is this? The main reason is the pattern of dynamics of energy pricing. Obviously high taxes on LPG raise its overall price and conversely subsides lower the price. The price of fuelwood for cooking quite often mimics price of LPG or kerosene in large urban areas after taking into consideration energy efficiency. Poor people in urban areas generally purchase biomass fuels such as fuelwood or charcoal, so high LPG prices mean high prices for biomass energy. The poor spend quite a bit of their income on energy; it can be as high as high as 15 to 20 percent. Thus, the price of biomass energy is obviously very important for their welfare.

Concerning climate change, encouraging the substitution of LPG for biomass fuels actually may be a winning prospect. It actually takes just over 11 kilograms of wood to provide the same cooking heat as one kilogram of LPG due to higher energy content and greater efficiencies of gas stoves. After some further conversions, for the same cooking task wood burned in open fires actually gives off 4 times more CO2 compared to LPG. It is true that some wood is from renewable sources, but do we really know how much? Also, is it really relevant? Perhaps, but the CO2 is going into the air regardless of its source.

This also does not mean that we should give up on making biomass stoves that are less polluting and more or efficient (see previous blog on new generation of improved stoves). Some new stoves give off levels of pollution that similar to using LPG. There is also a role for cooking with other fuels and technologies such as biogas or perhaps even alcohol in developing countries.

The ultimate goal is to alleviate energy poverty and there are many ways to do it. This might even include the promotion of LPG for cooking. What do you think?
For more continue reading below.

Most LPG is distributed either through private or state run oil or gas companies in most developing countries. What are the policies that they should follow to make LPG accessible to poor households? These actually have been well spelled out by some successful program. The include

  • Provide subsidies for the LPG stove to encourage adoption (but free may be a bit over the top);
  • Sell LPG at market rates so that it does not raise fuelwood prices in urban areas;
  • Do not excessively subsidize LPG because it will be siphoned off into areas such as transport and diverted from the household market;
  • Develop a program to distribute it in small more affordable bottles or cylinders; and
  • Extend promotion to rural areas if there is a viable market.

 Some interesting links

Kirk Smith’s editorial in Science In Praise of Petroleum. For the more technically inclined he makes more detailed points in Greenhouse Implications of Household Stoves: An Analysis for India.
I did a study on Understanding Fuelwood Prices in Developing Countries many years ago which established link between fuelwood prices and petroleum prices in biomass scarce countries.  This was further refined in The Urban Energy Transition which is a publication in the sidebar.  Another good somewhat technical study on Urban India Fuel Choice presents information for the National Sample Survey of India. 
There is one interesting rather long report on LPG Use as a Domestic Cooking Fuel in India.  This is quite comprehensive and well done if somewhat long report covering such issues as comparative cooking prices, the growth of LPG use which is documented but updated in the chart above along with government and industry policies.  The figures on LPG growth chart in this blog were mostly taken from this source and are from government ministries. 

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