Picturing low-carbon development: Methane cook stoves in rural India

A picture is worth a thousand words – and in this case, what you don’t see is the key story: what isn’t in the picture is black soot coating every wall.

Cook stoves powered by methane generate far less soot than those fueled by wood.

That’s because this resident of rural India is cooking on a two-burner stove powered by methane rather than wood. The methane is produced by a small-scale “digester” located just outside her home. (In the digester, manure from the family’s livestock, stabled nearby, is broken down by bacteria and converted to methane.)

And because she is cooking with methane, not only are her walls cleaner – so are her lungs, and those of her children and husband.

At least as importantly, she no longer needs to spend three to four hours every day – seven days a week, 365 days a year – gathering wood.

That means that instead of her having to collect firewood, build a fire and get it hot enough to cook, she can make the family’s breakfast with the flick of a switch on the methane stove. This time savings in the morning allows her children to get to school as classes begin, rather than several hours into the school day.

Those “extra” hours in her day also allow her to earn outside income, through activities like sewing or making biofertilizers and biopesticides for sale to local farmers – or simply to rest and have a modicum of leisure time. In addition, the digester generates enough fuel that she can cook more than once daily, providing her family with a more varied and nutritious diet.

Improving Indians’ standard of living while not harming environment

The methane digester that powers the stove provides remarkable benefits compared to the traditional wood-fired stove; it:

  1. Digests manure that otherwise would have released methane directly into the atmosphere. Although burning converts methane into carbon dioxide (CO2), methane itself is 23 times more powerful at trapping heat than is CO2.
  2. Allows trees and shrubs to continue storing carbon, rather than being cut down and burned as cooking fuel. Those avoided emissions, once tallied and verified, can be sold as offset credits that pay for the digesters.
  3. Boosts families' standard of living without any increase in carbon emissions.

Villagers show Steve Cochran and me their record books verifying each stoves' methane consumption. The villagers were extraordinarily hospitable, welcoming us with garlands of fresh flowers.

These photos were taken on a recent trip to India with my colleagues Richie Ahuja, Director of EDF’s India Program, and Steve Cochran, our Vice President for Climate and Air.

Richie spends a significant portion of his time in India, working closely with the five innovative nonprofits with whom we are partnering on projects in rural communities. (See Richie’s blog post from International Women’s Day about how EDF is using film to teach rural women about climate change.)  For Steve and me, though, this was the first time we’d seen any of the projects in action.

The methane digesters initiative is a project of the Agricultural Development and Training Service (ADATS), a comprehensive nonprofit rural development organization that since 1977 has worked on sustainable agriculture as well as adult literacy, children’s education, community health and related issues in southern India. Our other partner groups are working on a variety of additional rural technologies, including solar lanterns, more-efficient wood-burning stoves, and low-carbon farming.

EDF is exploring how carbon markets can help provide funding for these locally based initiatives that help significantly improve living standards for the rural poor.

With more than half of India’s nearly 1.2 billion residents having annual incomes under $500, economic development is essential. It’s starting to occur, and with astonishing speed – indeed, India is projected to be the globe’s third-biggest economy by 2035.

For too long, it’s been assumed that development will lead inexorably to massively greater carbon emissions. Our work in India seeks to help create an alternate path – one consistent with avoiding dangerous climate change even as the world’s most populous democracy continues its vital task of lifting its poorest citizens out of poverty.

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One Comment

  1. prevmedone
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    This has definitely been an eye opening article. Being an American, i have taken it for granted that everyone has access to the same technology, after reading this article I know better. I thought this was a joke or an extremely old article. I will not take what I have for granted any longer.

    Richard
    Best Pressure Cooker

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