Saturday, August 2, 2008

Coming of the Corporate Biomass Stove - Mass Manufacturing to Save the Day?

Many of the improved cooking stoves designed for the developing world have traditionally been built by hand, on location, in relatively small numbers - a deployment of 10,000 stoves would be quite an achievement, and we have only seen this a limited number of times (each worthy of note and praise); only in China have we been capable of deploying the necessary millions (+125!) of stoves. While technically well thought out stove designs have been around since the 1980's. it has been hard to develop momentum so that truly large numbers can begin to make a dent in global problems such as environmental degradation caused by firewood collection, health problems due to indoor air pollution from smoky fires in the kitchen, and most recently the specter of global warming due to poorly combusted fuels. The obstacles to be overcome for this to happen are many, including the challenge of introducing improved stoves in thousands of different communities (all with unique cooking practices, fuels, and just different cultures), a lack of disposible income (and just as important - cash flow) in target communities to pay for even obviously beneficial stoves, some memories of bad implementation experiences in the past, and a resistance by funding agencies to make a commitment to solving hard problems with an appropriate approach.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a very visible agency with clear opinions on what to do to improve the situations of the 3 billion people who cook with biomass fuels, and they have taken responsibility for reporting the "proportion of the population using solid fuels" as an indicator for reporting progress towards Millennium Development Goal 7 - to ensure environmental sustainability. Their brochure Fuel for Life is an introduction to their views on the problems and solutions. It seems that, in their opinion, using traditional biomass fuels is not consistent with.... can I believe this?... a decent quality of life - essentially giving up on improved biomass fuels and stoves as viable alternatives to liquid and gas fuels (and electricity) as "approved fuels" for sustainable, healthy, and environmentally appropriate progress. My complaint is that this is despite the obvious gains made in the last few years to improve efficiency and reduce emissions!

What of the alternative - continuing to learn to use our ample biomass resources responsibly and appropriately? The vast majority of fuel choices originate as solid biomass, and going to the effort of transforming them to more modern fuels can't help but result in energy and carbon accounting distortions in their conversion/transportation steps. It doesn't help that I consider myself to be a bottom up development advocate, believing in putting in more field time to understand what is most locally appropriate. Proclamations like the Millennium Development Goals suffer from problems like paying little attention to responsibility and accountability... who will personally take charge of this ambitious fuel transition effort for billions of people, and then perhaps suffer when it proves impossible to realize? Setting manageable goals is the first step toward progress.

Indeed the present situation would seem to be overwhelmingly discouraging if it were not for new developments, of interest here are the ones from the private sector, that are cropping up all over. For the last year or three there has been a huge amount of activity in what I call "corporate stoving" - it is not as if corporations of one kind or another have not always had cooking wares for sale (certainly in the developed world!), but they have not always been this active in developing countries - the market certainly is huge, but the margins are uncertain and the customers non-traditional. I could speculate on their ulterior motives, but suffice to say they are welcome players - the more technology rich stoves they are testing have the potential to reduce fuel consumption by 50% and drop emissions significantly, and result in deployments of tens of millions of units each.

My first experience with one of these was at Aprovecho's 2006 Stove Camp where a bare bones Philips Electronics model was under testing - what a beautiful fire the swirling air made, and it just ate up the waste wood with never a trace of smoke. Even in this early form (without glossy exterior and internal battery) it was a marvel of efficiency, the culmination of 4.5 billion years of learning how to make biomass fires on planet Earth. It provides the right amount of air to the right places at the right times - I don't know if you can combust fuel much more efficiently (so now we need more work on transferring the heat more effectively to the pot and food, the other half of the technical problem). The Philips business model is admirable - fully support your customers' new "cooking appliances", backing them with spare parts, maintenance facilities, and a warranty. Since 2006 Philips engineers have presented regular progress reports, and testing goes on in India - customer acceptance is of course crucial, and the thermoelectricity powered fan (with a NiMH AA battery for starting) is a critical part of the reliability requiring extensive field testing. But the real challenge is developing mechanisms to teaching people the advantages of a radical new stove and way of cooking, necessitating lessons illustrating possible initial downsides as well (there always appear to be some disadvantages compared to their present stove - no one stove, or fuel, suits every situation) - the best technology counts for naught without a dynamite cooking culture change plan.

British Petroleum's Oorja stove is part of BP's Emerging Consumer Market (ECM) strategy to provide energy solutions to the billions of people cooking with biomass. The most extensive discussion of it is in a June 2007 article in The Hindu newspaper here, and it describes a computer fan powered batch loading stove running on compressed pellets (presumably like small U.S. heating stove pellets) costing ~$USD 15 - hundreds of thousands of stoves were in operation at that time. Village based businesswomen sell the stoves and the pellets made from agricultural waste - a new infrastructure for pellets (or other kinds of briquettes) will be needed to compete with existing firewood and charcoal ones if people are to make the transition to stove designed to use these more environmentally sustainable and benign alternatives. It resembles a top loading updraft type gasifier, with credit given to the Indian Institute of Science, and they have ambitious goal of 20 million sold by 2020; their promotional video of it is here, and Yale has an excellent overview here.

Perhaps I heard about the Bosch-Siemens plant oil stove next - though I have yet to see one. Again, the influence of corporate R&D expertise is obvious in its sophisticated design and attention to detail. Cooking stove oil appropriate biomass typically is purpose raised (hopefully not for its food value), and there are a wide variety of choices - jatropha is often mentioned these days as an example and small oil presses can be built locally to provide jobs and economic security right where the stove benefits are also located. We can always hope that there is room for regional variation and distributed manufacturing - they have a stated commitment to locally produced oils - let's pray that plant oils from locally appropriate crops will always be competitive with upcoming bioengineered and watered/fertilized mono crops. In volume they expect that the stove price will be $USD 20 and this article reports on the deployment of a first 100 stoves in the Congo earlier this year - like all of these stoves the Protos is in the development and testing phase, so we can expect to see changes and reports from far flung places around the globe (using its partners, this one is planned for field trials in a number of countries such as Indonesia, Philipines, India, and other parts of Africa) - and see the price drop as more efficient manufacturing is realized.

Aprovecho and the Shell Foundation have worked together for years developing stoves that have fewer emissions, and on refining the tests to measure them. The latest from the Shell Foundation is their collaboration with Envirofit, aiming to deliver tens of millions of Rocket stoves to the world before you know it. I have seen the simplest model and there are great design pictures out there for coming models) - we should expect a metal combustion chamber backed with an insulating ceramic, with various attractive shells - a glimpse of their future model in testing as reported here in the NYT. Their effort is evolving quickly so expect to soon find all kinds of additional information out there.
One of the things we expect to see from the biggest players is marketing of these new stoves as if they are any other new consumer product - focus groups, advertising, brand management, as well as hopefully a network of distributors for repair and spare parts (and perhaps even branded fuel). And it is expected that turning a profit will be part of their business models, but for now only they how - unfortunately subsidies have always been a part of improved cooking stove programs, since people rarely have the cash on hand (or cash flow - banks are mostly a developed world phenomena) to buy a stove even if the payback due to fuel savings is clear. Manufacturing economies of scale and consistent quality - plus new methods of outreach, financing, support, and attention to customer feedback - should favor capitalism finally, and if not then providing incentives is nothing new and can be considered. Later.

The Approvecho Research Center is anything but a global corporation (their emphasis has traditionally been on R&D), but they have just entered the stoving arena as a big player by rolling out their independent StoveTec line of products, manufactured in volume in China. They practically invented stoves made with a metal shell and fluffy ceramic Rocket elbow... and now they have a price that is just plain hard to believe - on the dock in Ningbo these can be $USD 6 in volume, and you can buy spare parts as well. A side fuel feed entrance (instead of the top loading versions that we are seeing from everyone initially) certainly is appropriate for a fuel flexible stove, and the folks at Aprovecho can be expected to come out with it first.

A "fan assisted" stove marketed for camping (a developed world activity only) is the Woodgas Campstove, an evolution of the one first proposed by long time biomass advocate Dr. Tom Reed - over the last 3 years this one has logically progressed from a rough design to the present polished stainless steel versions (two sizes) that should also appeal to the developing world. They are presently made in India, and we can only encourage then to experiment with local distribution there. Note that the Philips and BP ones also have a fan (you will also see the term "gasifier" used often), a term meaning that they usually require batteries or a cord to power them - at first this may not seem suitable for the developing world, so let's consider this further. In most cases these are destined for growing metropolitan suburbs where charcoal fuel tends to dominate, costing families as much as 1/3 of their income; these people tend to be familiar with technologies like cell phones so the arrival of a new battery powered appliance is not necessarily a complication. Given that these stoves can require only one watt of fan power to produce ~3000 watts of cooking energy from previously waste materials, there are some huge incentives to switch back to raw biomass - with a net benefit not just in fuel and cost savings, but a lighter impact the atmosphere.

There are a number of other stoves worth mentioning here which aren't backed by a multinational that may have trading carbon credits in mind too (efficient stoves are carbon neutral), all with the potential to scale their production up - if they have not already done so by the time you read this. These are already made professionally and when there is the demand they are designed to be made in volume with modern quality control methods, shipped around the world, and supported in the field. Examples pictured here are the Vesto stove from New Dawn Engineering (South Africa), 25,000 German made Save80 stoves are deployed in refugee camps (shown here being used in Nigeria), and the very promising Turbo Rice Husk Stove from the Philippines burns rice husks with absolutely beautiful flame characteristics. Stoves with chimneys, to address specifically indoor air pollution concerns, can be harder to mass produce because of their size, but in Central America two standouts producing more than their share are the Ashden Award winning factory-made concrete ONIL stove (Guatemala primarily) and the metal ADHESA/Trees Water People (Honduras).


Ashden Awards said...

Thanks for linking to one of our case studies on improved stoves. There are more here:

Unknown said...

I had no idea that these kinds of fireplaces also exist on earth. Thank you for sharing these precious pictures and information.
I Buy Wood Stoves

Julian said...

I'm involved in a new south Asian social enterprise providing multifuel biomass cookstoves to rural women's groups. We're in the process of trying to identify a suitable stove producer as a key partner, and I'd like to ask you a few questions. If you have the time and inclination, please would you get in touch?

Thanks in advance

Unknown said...

I love the big stove specially because i like to cook all kind of recipe, how ever i prefer to have a reasonable place. Actually i saw a beautiful stove in a house that was published in costa rica homes for sale it was big and beautiful, i think i will go there because it catched my attention.

Unknown said...

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Unknown said...

Getting energy and water to developing countries is a key to getting them out of poverty. Great article!

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Revolution from Home said...

Hello, I am working on a project in the Highlands of Chiapas installing the ONIL stove. I really appreciate your insight and would love to chat with you when you have a minute. I need not explain to you the complexities I am facing, but would very much value your two-bits as someone with experience in the field. Thanks, Beth

Revolution from Home said...

Please disregard whatever blog that Blogger has me linked to (see my previous comment.) You can contact me at Thank you, Beth

himanshuk said...

Need to marketing in metro and B grade cities and developed customer support for oorja biomass pellet stove in India

vishal said...

where i can buy this stoves in mumbai,india.get me the address of such sellers in mumbai,india.

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