Asia Needs to Get Cooking When It Comes to Solar Energy

Solar energy could one day replace the smokey fuels being used in many area for cooking. Photo: ADB
Solar energy could one day replace the smokey fuels being used in many area for cooking. Photo: ADB

By Yongping Zhai (翟永平)

Solar power is helping Asia get electricity to people, particularly in rural and remote areas, but it has fallen behind in its use as a clean energy cooking source.

The Asia and the Pacific region is making steady progress in meeting the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for access to electricity. According to the latest data from International Energy Agency, over 900 million people in developing countries in Asia have gained access to electricity since 2000. In that year, just 67% of people in the region had access to electricity. By 2017, it was 91%. Increasingly, solar energy has become a part of this success.

By 2018, globally, the installed cost of solar photovoltaic technology (solar PV) declined to $1.21 million/MW, and in the Asia and the Pacific region, the total installed solar capacity reached 209,124 MW, i.e. 190 times of the capacity in 2010!  As such, solar energy has greatly contributed to the SDG for providing electricity to rural households in the Asia and Pacific region. In particular, India completed the electrification of all of its villages in 2018, as the solar-based mini-grids and stand-alone solar home systems have helped to deliver access to some of the hardest-to-reach rural households. In Bangladesh, more than 5 million small scale solar home systems provided electricity to almost 12% of its 160 million people.

However, in sharp contrast to its significant progress in access to electricity, Asia and the Pacific region is very much off-track in meeting another dimension of the SDGs: universal access to clean cooking. According to International Energy Agency, 1.7 billion people in Asia and the Pacific, or 44% of the population, still cook using solid fuels (such as fuel wood, crop wastes, charcoal, coal or even dung). In India, over 700 million people had no access to clean cooking in 2017. And even in the People’s Republic of China, where 100% electrification was achieved in 2015, there are still more than 400 million people without access to clean cooking.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), indoor smoke in rural homes can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for fine particles. Such exposure is particularly harmful for women and young children, who spend the most time at home.

  The power of the sun should be put to work as a clean energy cooking source in Asia.

Now, as solar energy contributed to last mile electrification in remote villages, can we make use of solar energy in rural kitchens?

Indeed, as the cost of solar energy and battery storage continues to decline, the capacity of the microgrid system can now be scaled up to meet cooking needs in rural areas, using rice cookers and microwave ovens. The higher demand for electricity from cooking and other household appliances beyond lighting will mean bigger microgrids with better economy of scale, i.e. cheaper power on a unit basis. A recent study shows that the range of costs for cooking a meal using a solar-based microgrid is comparable with that of all other cooking options – including firewood – and even more cost-competitive than LPG.

Further, there are applications for direct use of solar for cooking, known as solar cookers, which can be used outdoors on sunny days. A new generation of solar cookers, developed through research by Nottingham Trent University, can work indoors by capturing sunlight on the outside of a house and concentrating its power using Fresnel lenses.

This concentrated light is reflected through channeling into a small space in the center of a highly-insulated aluminum oven, fitted with thermal bricks. Depending on the solar irradiation, 5-10 Fresnel lenses could provide an oven temperature high enough for all kinds of cooking needs. As solar cookers only work when the sun shines, solar cooking can be combined with an electric rice cooker and microwave oven powered by solar microgrids.

As the use of solar energy increases, there is also a growing need to deal with its “intermittency”. To address this, we need to extend our concept of solar to include storage, sometimes called “Solar+”.  This would enable integration of more solar energy and other intermittent renewable energy sources.

We’re trying to do our part at ADB. We are supporting a concentrated solar power plant with storage capacity in the People’s Republic of China and a number of solar PV based micro-grids with battery storage in the Philippines, Pakistan, Myanmar and other countries to provide uninterrupted electricity to rural households. In San Kan village, near Mandalay City in Myanmar, we supported a 9.76 kW solar based micro-grid system with battery storage. That was enough to power two LED lights and one phone charger for 217 households in the village.

These are relatively small steps in the huge challenge facing the region. But it is part of an increasing understanding that we’ll need the power of the sun to achieve universal access to electricity and clean cooking by 2030.