Clean Cooking: 33 Solutions For One Renewable Energy Problem

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The latest energy report from the International Energy Agency describes how much more pants-on-fire activity is needed to pump up the clean power trend on the heels of the COVID-19 crisis. For starters, at this rate an estimated 620 million people still won’t have electricity by 2030. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s small potatoes compared to the clean cooking situation, where an estimated 2.3 billion people will still be making their meals with dirty fuels and equipment 20 years from now. Somewhat ironically, renewable energy is part of the problem.

the use of renewable energy and other resources in the clean cooking movement
A new VC portfolio aims at improving the use of renewable energy and other resources in the clean cooking movement (image via Clean Cooking Alliance).

Clean Cooking & The Climate Crisis

The new IEA report draws a relatively rosy picture of electricity access over the past eight years, with more than a billion new people hooked up between 2010 and 2018. Most of the remaining electricity deficit is concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, which explains why renewable energy investors and startups have been rushing to fill the gap there.

In contrast, IEA finds that the clean cookstove movement flatlined during the same eight-year period. Beyond Africa, there are large concentrations of need in parts of Asia and elsewhere.

Some countries even went into reverse gear after 2012, as the pace of their clean cookstove progress failed to keep up with their population growth.

Aside from the climate crisis and other environmental issues, the clean cookstove area also involves gender and public health inequities that are being exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak, as a result of prolonged exposure to airborne particulates.

IEA explains:

“This lack of clean cooking access continues to have serious gender, health, and climate consequences…Under current and planned policies, 2.3 billion people would still be deprived of access to clean cooking fuels and technologies in 2030. The Covid‑19 pandemic is likely to swell the toll of prolonged exposure of women and children to household air pollution caused by mainly using raw coal, kerosene or traditional uses of biomass for cooking.”

Clean Cookstoves & Renewable Energy

If you caught that thing about biomass, that’s where renewable energy is part of the problem. Wood, dung, and other forms of biomass are renewable energy resources, but without modern processing and/or cooking devices they can be just as dirty and dangerous to the climate and human health as fossil fuels, especially when used indoors with poor ventilation. That’s in addition to the environmental degradation that occurs when biomass is harvested or collected without regard to sustainability.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the Clean Cooking Alliance, which has just tapped 33 companies to be supported through the organization’s new Venture Catalyst program.

“The portfolio reflects a growing number of companies whose customers lack access to clean cooking solutions, including multi-product last-mile distributors, microfinance institutions, and distributed energy services companies,” explains the Clean Cooking Alliance, adding that “Many VC portfolio companies integrate industrial scale manufacturing, digital technologies, mobile money, and consumer financing.”

Here’s An Interesting Idea (Or Two) For Clean Cooking

The VC portfolio casts a wide net for solutions, so there is some wiggle room for improvement in the deployment of fossil fuels among the 33 companies. However, the emphasis is on game-changing improvements to direct biomass conversion along with the expansion of other renewable resources, primarily biogas and solar.

CleanTechnica spilled a lot of ink on the biogas field some years ago, particularly regarding a major federal biogas initiative here in the US called AgStar, which launched in 2010 during the Obama administration with a focus on livestock biogas.

A lot has happened to the technology since then. One good example is new biogas digester architecture that uses flexible materials and requires minimal skills to assemble.

The VC portfolio company HomeBiogas has developed a small scale biogas digester looks like a small inflatable bouncy house and produces both usable gas for cooking and a fertilizer in bio-slurry form. The home-sized system can be use to process “humanure” as well as livestock manure.

On the larger end of the scale is a company called SP Eco Fuel. According to the SP, its “Flexi Bio-Gas” system takes one day to install, compared to 1-2 months for conventional digesters.

Another big change since 2010 is the Internet of Things, which can have a game-changing impact on lifecycle costs. In that area, a good example is the company Connected Energy. They describe their remote monitoring system “Smart Biogas” as an “Internet of Things platform…designed to monitor a large number of biogas systems over a wide geographical area at minimal cost.”

The idea is to increase efficiency and reduce maintenance costs by flagging potential problems early on. A pay-as-you-go system is also in the works.

More Renewable Energy For Cleaner Cooking

Here in the US, another big push for biogas is also in the wind. A new Renewable Energy Certificate program for biogas launched into the pilot test phase last July, so now would be a good time to check in and see how that’s going.

Another dramatic change in the past 10 years is the falling cost of wind and solar power, which provides an electrification pathway to cleaner cooking.

That is also reflected in the VC portfolio, the companies Fosera and M-KOPA Solar being two examples. Both pitch expandable, small scale solar systems that can graduate from lighting all the way up to cooking, water heating, and refrigeration.

Cooking electrification is also getting renewed attention in the US, where the building electrification movement has been gathering over the past couple of years.

The movement is aimed at pushing fossil gas out of the building market, partly through bans on new construction hookups and partly through appliance retrofits for existing buildings (think heat pumps and you’re on the right track).

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Image: via Clean Cooking Alliance.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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