India can Achieve Net Zero Through Solar-Powered Cooking, Not LPG

An elderly woman stands on a sunny terrace as she stirs the food in a vessel, resting on a parabolic metal dish.
Ground Report
Madhya Pradesh, India
India can Achieve Net Zero Through Solar-Powered Cooking, Not LPG

India committed to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2070, at COP26 in Glasgow. This is India’s bold promise to the world. But the deadline is 20 years later than the mid-century i.e. the 2050, an overall deadline for the world by climate scientists. Net zero by 2070 was one of five commitments by India at COP26, though currently this seems like a far-fetched idea for a country where  70% of whose energy needs are fulfilled through coal.

India is the world’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases that are causing climate change even though India’s emissions per capita are significantly lower than the global average. The country aims to fulfil its net zero commitment in two ways: by achieving 50% of its energy requirements through renewable sources by 2030 and by increasing the forest and tree cover so they can function as carbon sinks

Liquefied Petroleum Gas, advertised as a clean fuel

On October 22, 1965, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas’s public undertaking, Indian Oil, released the first LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) connection in India. The objective was to reduce indoor pollution for people, particularly women, generated through wood and kerosene-fired stoves. According to a report, 20-50% of the pollutants in the air come from solid-fuel combustion. Indoor pollution becomes a reason for ill-health, and carries fatal risks for lower-income groups, particularly women. LPG is cleaner than other biomass cooking options. According to a report by the World LPG Association, fuel wood generates five times more carbon emissions than LPG per unit. According to another of its reports, LPG emits 50% less CO2 than coal and 20% less than any heating oil.

The central and state governments have had several schemes in the last few decades to deliver LPG door-to-door. 

A cylinder lies in the front, while a wood-fire burns in the background heating a vessel lying atop, as a child watches over.
Empty gas cylinder resting in the corner of the under-construction segment of the house Village Samasgarh, district Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh / Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana

Rashid, a resident of Bugliwali village, said, “I got an LPG connection under the Ujjwala scheme, but I gave my cylinder to my relative living in the city. I get only 200 to 300 rupees a day. And I get work for hardly 20 days in a month. In such a situation, you tell me how I get a cylinder re-filled, which costs a thousand rupees today?”

Rashid is just one of many in Bugliwali, and the adjoining three villages—Chor Imli, Chitra and Bhatta—in Hathiyakheda gram panchayat, in Sehore district, some 50 km from Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. Residents of all four villages struggle with basic amenities like road connectivity, drinking water, electricity, access to healthcare, etc. Most men work as laborers. Some are part-time farmers. Women run the household, which includes fetching water, up to 10 times a day in summer. They look after the livestock, collect fuelwood, and prepare dung cakes for cooking. Cooking with wood and dung is terrible for indoor pollution and also releases greenhouse gases.

A woman, wearing a pink sari, holds a child in her arms as she adds firewood to the fire that is heating a blackened pot
Manju making tea on the chulha in Samasgarh village, Bhopal district / Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

According to the data of the Government of India, by March 2023, the total number of active domestic gas consumers in India has reached 31.36 crore. With this, the LPG coverage in India has reached 104.1%. The Ujjwala scheme, which started in 2016, has contributed a lot in this, as till January 30, 2023, a total of 9.58 crore Ujjwala connections have been distributed by the government to women in poor families.

A bar graph showing the annual, gradual increase in LPG Coverage in India from 56.2 per cent in 2014, to 104.1 per cent in 2022
Source: PPAC (Petroleum planning and analysis cell).

Afsana, 25 years old, dusts off the gas stove sitting unused in a corner of her two-room house in Bugliwali. Afsana’s mother-in-law got a gas stove and cylinder in 2019 under the Ujjwala scheme. “I got married three years ago, and in these three years, I have got a chance to cook food on the gas stove only once. My husband did not get the gas cylinder filled. Since then, this stove is just lying among the junk,” she said.

A dusty gas-stove lies on top of a red gas cylinder, a dusty bucket and some overturned vessels.
A gas stove lying unused at Afsana’s house in Bugliwali village / Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

According to the fifth report of the National Family Health Survey, 43.3% of households in India still use wood-burning stoves as their first choice for cooking. The reasons are both behavioral and economic.

Reasons for not using LPG 

Gas stoves and chulhas (wood-burning stoves) co-exist in many rural households. Most residents agree that cooking on LPG is more efficient. But, they have not transitioned completely. There is a belief that roti (Indian bread) tastes best when made on chulhas. And then there is the fear of fire. Salma Bi of Bugliwali village said, “I’m afraid to use the gas stove. I’m scared that it might burn down the house. So, my daughter-in-law uses it. I cook only on the chulha. There were no teaching sessions either. Maybe I would have used it more often if I had been taught.”

A woman, dressed in a blue salwar-kameez with her head covered by a pink cloth, sits beside an earthen stove which holds ash and half-burned sticks
Saira, 60, sitting next to her chulha; she doesn’t have a gas connection / Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

The Ujjwala policy document says that for KYC it is mandatory for the distributor to do a safety check and give out an ‘installation certificate’ before giving a gas connection. The certificate is supposed to be given after a proper ‘briefing on safety, demonstration usage of LPG’.

The Performance Report released by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on December 1, 2019, notes that in reality this might not always be the case. “However, a test check during field audit at selected LPG distributors revealed that the installation certificates were not annexed with the SVs in 2,367 instances (12.75%). Besides, in the case of four LPG distributors, the audit observed that the installation certificates were not available for any of the 11,906 PMUY connections.”

An old woman, dressed in a floral salwar-kameez, sits beside an earthen stove and stares into the camera.
Rukhsana, resident of Bugliwali village, can’t see properly. Cooking on a chulha is difficult for her; on many occasions her hands get burned / Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

Economic forces behind continued fuelwood collection

The four villages in Hathiya Kheda panchayat are close to a forest. The residents, mostly women, have traditionally gathered fuelwood from the forest. In the absence of a monetary value given to the time and effort of the women to gather fuelwood, this source of fuel is considered practically free by most villagers. As a result, while most households have LPG connections, they still use chulhas.

Around 10 kg of wood is used in a household every day. Villagers say forest department guards do not stop them from collecting dry wood, though it becomes a problem during the monsoon. Even if they are able to collect wood during the rainy season, moist wood is even worse for indoor pollution. The combustion is even more incomplete when the wood is wet, so it releases more black carbon. Black carbon is a significant polluter and a greenhouse gas.

On the basis of purchasing power parity, the per liter price of LPG in India is the highest in the world, according to a media report. The price of domestic LPG cylinders has increased by 144% in the last eight years, making clean fuel unaffordable for India’s poor.

A line-graph of Non-subsidised LPG Cylinders of 14.2 kg in Delhi, which were a little below INR 1000 in May 2014, and fell to a little more than INR 500 in May 2020, but then rose to over INR 1000 in May 2023.
Source: Indian Oil.

As a result, it has been found in a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India that since 2016 there has been a continuous decline in the refilling of gas cylinders. The 31.8 million Ujjwala connection holders registered on December 31, 2018 have refilled an average of 3.21 times in a year. The Government of India provides 12 cylinders in a year with a subsidy to all Ujjwala Yojana connection holders. On March 24, 2023, the Government of India announced it would continue the subsidy of Rs. 200 per cylinder received by Ujjwala holders.

A bar chart showing the fall of consumption of LPG cylinders in both the PMUY and non-PMUY categories, between 2016 and 2019.
Source:  IOCL (Indian Oil Corporation Limited)  MOPNG (Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas) PMUY (Pradhanmantri Ujjawala Yojana).

Aamna Bi’s hands are blistered and marked with wood splinters. She said, “I have not got a gas connection. It is difficult to cook food on the chulha, the smoke burns my eyes… No one listens to us. To whom should we talk about our problems? We don’t have money. My eyes hurt due to the smoke, but we can’t afford to get a cylinder.”

A woman in a red salwar kameez, sits beside an earthen stove and firewood.
Aamna Bi said half of her day is spent in getting wood for the stove and cooking / Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

A different problem for the urban poor

Villagers close to a forest can use wood as cooking fuel. The urban poor cannot.

Kajal, a resident of a two-room house without proper ventilation in the Durga Nagar slum of Bhopal, depends on the gas stove for cooking. But she has kept a wood-burning stove for times when she cannot afford to refill her cylinder. She said, “Many times, when there is no money, the gas cylinder remains empty. Then I use a wood-burning stove. Wood is difficult to get in the city. I often light the chulha using cardboard and dry sugarcane peels… The entire house is filled with smoke… My eyes hurt… But there is no other solution.”

An open metal stove in which rests a half-burned log of wood,
In Bhopal’s Durga Nagar slum, an iron stove that uses wood and dung is used as an alternative to gas cylinders / Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.
A woman in a green sari, stares out of the frame, as she sits beside an open, metal stove on which rests an iron frying-pan as firewood lies in the background.
Kajal, a resident of Bhopal’s Durga Nagar slum, sitting beside her iron-stove fueled with wood, cardboard and sugarcane leftovers / Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

Many women like Kajal, Afsana and Aamna Bi want freedom from smoke. But, due to their economic condition, they cannot get the gas cylinder refilled.

LPG’s carbon footprint

LPG is cleaner than biomass, but it is not the cleanest cooking fuel. It is refined from crude oil, one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

In addition, the availability of LPG in India is largely import dependent. According to the BP Energy Outlook report, by 2040 India’s dependence on other countries for natural gas will be 60%, up from 45% in 2018.

A chart showing the amount of India's LPG imports in February 2023 (total equaling 2.07 million tons), from UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, USA, Malaysia and China in descending amounts.
Source: Oil Analytics Firm Vortexa.

Apart from the carbon emissions during use, there are emissions along the supply chain. Gas cylinders are distributed by trucks and vans using diesel and petrol. According to a study, an average of 60 grams of carbon is emitted per kilometer to transport a 14.2 kg cylinder. 

Solar thermal cooking, a worthy alternative

Swaaha Resource Management Private Limited, a startup in Indore, focuses on promoting solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuel-based energy. One of their products is a parabolic solar concentrator. These are different from traditional solar cookers. In a solar concentrator, a parabolic dish reflects sunlight and focuses it at a point. A parabolic solar concentrator with a diameter of 1 meter costs Rs 10,000-12,000 and can reach a temperature of 100-150°C.

A concave, reflective dish is installed in the middle of a green patch.
SK14 Parabolic Solar Concentrator is mounted on top of the Emsen burner dish / Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

Lt Col (Retd) Anurag Shukla, and Archana Shukla, from Mhow near Indore, had been using traditional solar cookers since 1992. Anurag used solar cookers during his time in the army. According to him, pulses and curries taste far better when cooked in a solar cooker. Hence, he kept using it after retirement. In the last five years, they have shifted to parabolic solar concentrators, and recently recently gifted a Rs 4,000 solar cooker to their daughter.

Archana Shukla says, “Food cooked on a solar cooker tastes great. We cook food that consumes more fuel on the solar cooker, and the rest of the food on gas. Because of this, our gas cylinder lasts for two to two-and-a-half months.” 

There are larger solar concentrators, with parabolic dishes of 2.5-meter diameter. They can generate a temperature of 350-400°C. It costs Rs 75,000 and is meant for commercial use or for a large family.

A bearded and turbanned man stands on the left, and a woman in a salwar kameez and turbaned young boy stand to the right of a convex dish on which rests a vessel of cooking food.
Rajendra Singh cooking food on Prince model of solar concentrator in Asrawad Buzurg village / Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

Rajendra Singh, a resident of village Asravad Buzurg near Indore, retired from the post of Goods Train Manager. He bought a solar concentrator in 2017. He explains, “Except for roti (bread), we cook all the food on the solar concentrator. Compared to LPG, it cooks food faster if the sun is good; if the weather is bad, the efficiency decreases. Everything depends on the sun…now the cylinder lasts more than two months.”

Janak, fondly called Janak Didi, lives in Sanawadi village near Indore. She has been cooking on parabolic solar concentrators for several years. Janak Didi says, “In my house, hardly one or two LPG cylinders are consumed in a year, that too only in an emergency. All the work is done with parabolic solar cooker.”

The efficiency of a solar concentrator is completely dependent on sunlight. In a research study, for the SK 14 solar concentrator, on average it took 20 minutes to boil 250 ml of water and cook 100 grams of rice. It took 10 minutes to boil 100 ml of milk. In another study, done on LPG cooking time, it took 29 minutes to cook 875 g of rice with 3 kg of water. It took 9 minutes to make five cups of tea (14 g tea + 75 g sugar + 100 ml milk).

A man stands before a convex, dish comprising of multiple metal reflectors.
Sameer Sharma, the co-founder of Swaaha, Indore, explaining the working of Scheffler solar concentrator works / Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

Swaaha is now building even larger solar concentrators that can run the kitchen of an educational institution. Such solar concentrators have been used during pilgrimages such as the Amarnath Yatra.

Need for innovation

Swaaha’s co-founder Sameer Sharma admits a basic problem with solar concentrators—they need open space, which is not available in most urban homes. Plus, the heat cannot be stored. Hence, it cannot be used for cooking at night. Though, the firm is working on the development of a container that can store the heat. 

Sharma says, “Parabolic solar concentrators are the cleanest energy technology of today. It does not even require photovoltaic cells made of silicon. If India works to promote solar concentrators from now on, it can achieve the goal of net zero at a much faster pace than other countries, while taking the poor and backward people of India along.” 

The central government has tried to popularize solar cooking through the Surya Nutan solar cooktop developed by Indian Oil. In 2021, 50 households in five cities (Leh, Agatti in Lakshadweep, Gwalior, Udaipur, and Delhi-NCR) were given this cooktop as a pilot scheme. It consists of a solar panel that can be mounted on the roof, coupled with a hybrid cooktop that can run on electricity and a thermal battery. There are single and double-burner models; the price ranges between Rs 12,000 and Rs 23,000. At India Energy Week 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the Surya Nutan stove would soon reach three crore households within the next few years.

An infographic showing different types of solar contraptions that can be used to support the cooking needs of a family of four.
Credit: Indian Oil Corportaion Limited.

Need to go solar

As per the latest IPCC report of 2023, the world has to start taking serious action today to even have a 50% chance of limiting global temperature rise since the beginning of the Industrial Age within 1.5°C. Our policies and action must reflect an aim to reduce GHGs by 43% and CO2 emissions by 48%, from 2019 levels by the end of this decade. Using renewable energy like solar for cooking can go a long way. Renewable energy-driven cooking will help reduce carbon emissions to almost zero. Further, it is cost-effective in the long run. This transition also goes hand-in-hand with gender justice, ensuring women’s safety from indoor pollution, and the risk which comes with collecting wood from the forest. 

Moving away from carbon-based energy to renewable energy is at the core of the energy transition. The objective is to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from all human activities, including cooking. The Government of India is promoting non-fossil-based fuels for power generation and transportation. But, in the case of cooking fuel, the focus is still on LPG. Still, even 58 years after it was introduced, about 43% of the population does not use LPG as their primary cooking fuel. Solar cooking could make our fight against climate change more inclusive and efficient. 

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Ground Report in Hindi on May 28, 2023 and English on June 6, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner Image: Archana Shukla cooking food on the prince solar concentrator on the roof of her house in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh / Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

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