David Lehr

Sustainable Cooking Stoves

Sustainable CookstoveEnergy poverty in the developing world is a complex and ongoing problem with serious impacts on health, economic growth, and the overall environment. The impact on the poor is particularly felt in their day to day needs for cooking fuel – much of it coming from either oil or gas – or from the decreasing availability of freely collected fuels such as firewood or its derivative, charcoal.

Growing price volatility for these products has created shortages of fuel and increasing uncertainty around meeting basic needs. Indoor pollution from smoke contributes to health problems such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancers and eye diseases, and of course there are ongoing risks or burns and fire from unstable cooking pots and stoves.

As I have learned more about these issues and cooking fuel in particular, I was surprised at both just how complex they are and the number of organizations trying to find “better stove solutions,” including giants such as the FAO, Oxfam, and Shell Foundation to much smaller organizations such as Mayan Families, The Escorts Foundation, Envirofit, and the Chimp-n-Sea Wildlife Conservation Fund.

These organizations are all either donating stoves, or providing funding to local organizations and communities so that they can either purchase or build their own stoves. The focus has been almost exclusively on improving efficiencies around wood burning, and most of the designs are based on the rocket stove, whose creation is widely attributed to Larry Winiarski from Aprovecho.

There are other alternatives that have the potential to move away from wood and fossil fuels altogether which I will write about in future posts. One of the more interesting wood fuel organizations I have seen is Stove Team International in Eugene, Oregon. Their approach has been to set up small factories in Central America that produce affordable and fuel-efficient stoves, largely initially using volunteer labor and small grants to cover the costs of construction. Ultimately, however, they are one of the few organizations actually selling their stoves and using a business approach to increase their sustainability and avoid creating a “hand out” mentality. Over 4,200 of their stoves have been sold in the last year.

Stove Team produces stoves from local materials that sell for $40 with the grants covering $20 and the end user paying a final price of $20 (often equivalent to the costs for a two or three week supply of firewood). The money is collected in payments of $5 a month for four months. In addition to helping address the above health, environment and cost concerns, the factories are run by locals, so employment opportunities increase as well.

The stoves – called Ecocinas – use 50 to 70 percent less fuel than traditional stoves or open fires and emit 70% less smoke. They generally cook food quickly, freeing up time for their users. The stoves also can be easily carried outside, which also reduces indoor pollution.

Today Stove Team has factories in El Salvador and Guatemala and they are planning to expand to other countries as funding becomes available. They are also working on getting their stoves certified so that they can receive carbon credits and further decrease their need for grant monies.