| Boiling Point No. 32 - January 1994 |
by Gordon McGranahan and Arne Kaijser, Stockholm Environmental Institute, Box 2142, S-10314, Stockholm, Sweden.
What is household energy?
Household energy can be defined as the energy consumed in homes to meet the needs of the household. Thus, for example, cooking food at home for the household is included, while cooking food for sale is not, and nor are food processing and preparation undertaken before the household purchases the food. The definition of a household varies from country to country and even study to study. Where possible, most household-energy analysis relies on a definition which specifies that household members live and eat together.
Households constitute the major energydemand sector in many Third World countries. They rely heavily on biofuels, such as wood, crop residues and charcoal, which tend to be used at relatively low efficiencies, and cannot be used easily outside the household sector. As such, sectoral demand figures, aggregated across all fuels, are not in line with the level of energy services delivered to households, and are a poor indicator of the resource implications of household energy use. In any case, the importance of household energy lies more in the hardship imposed by inadequacies than in the level of energy that households demand.
The services that energy can help deliver to households range from the basic (cooking) to the luxurious (air conditioning); the vast majority of Third World households use energy predominantly to meet basic needs. Cooking is the principal energy-using activity followed by lighting. In cooler climates and seasons, heating may also be critical but it is natural to focus first on cooking and lighting in assessing household energy problems.
The notion that there is a global fuelwood crisis led by collection in excess of sustainable yield is no longer tenable. Whether or not there is a global energy crisis, however, household energy problems can be severe, and are of particular importance to the poor. In the energy sector, as in virtually every other sector, the problems of the poor are the most intractable.
Probably well over 90 per cent of public funds allocated to the household sector in developing countries over the past two decades have been devoted to subsidizing commercial fuels such as electricity and kerosene, benefiting primarily the better-off households. This has helped to create energy problems, and has done little to ease the problems of the poor; most of the lessons to be drawn from such experiences are negative. On the other hand, the relatively small proportion of funding devoted to activities such as stove programmes and biofuel-supply enhancement should be viewed as exploratory in nature. More positive conclusions can be drawn, even if past activities should not simply be replicated.
Until recently, efforts have focused on improving household energy parameters, such as cooking efficiency; other householder concerns were viewed as factors which should be taken into account in the pursuit of energy efficiency. The emphasis should be reversed: improving householders' welfare should be the objective.
Introducing household energy concerns into more broad-based programmes is particularly important in the areas of household biofuel supply, smoke exposure, and passive heating and cooling. Low-income housing programmes and, for the wealthier households, building codes and standards, could provide vehicles for addressing these concerns.
Fuel supplies and costs
In most poor countries, the bulk of the rural population has little cash income and can ill afford commercial fuels. Thus, despite their difficulties in obtaining biofuel, few rural households switch to petroleum products or electricity for cooking. Instead, biofuel scarcity leads women to work harder and accept lower quality biofuels. This work may take the form of longer travel times to collect fuel, lower collection rates, and/or more time spent supervising the fire, especially if lower-quality biofuels are used. In the rare cases where households are led to purchase fuel, there can also be a financial burden. A fuel shortage could also lead to serious health problems if, for example, it prevented people from boiling drinking water. There is also concern that the use of lower-quality biofuels such as dung and crop residues may affect soil fertility and hence agricultural productivity.
Despite these problems, there is little evidence that rural dwellers, even women, perceive fuel shortages to be a major problem, comparable with the difficulties of obtaining water, food, and agricultural land. Also, local variations preclude generalizations about the severity of biofuel-supply problems. It is not uncommon for two villages, separated by only a few kilometres, to have radically different biofuel-supply situations. Thus, while the total number of people facing serious problems may be very large, and collecting fuelwood is always a considerable effort, it can be difficult to pinpoint where the serious problems are.
Were it not for the 'free' collection of biofuels in rural areas, the financial burden of energy use would be far more severe among the poor than among the rich. The demand cooking and lighting rises more slowly than income but the poor often pay considerably higher prices when they do purchase fuel.
Equipment costs for cooking can prevent poor urban dwellers from using the most economical fuel. It is not uncommon for the fuel costs of cooking with kerosene, LPG, or electricity to be lower than for purchased biofuel. Biofuel stoves tend to be less expensive, however, than the equipment needed to use other fuels. If equipment costs are converted into daily costs using prevailing interest rates in the formal sector, the overall costs of using biofuel may still be higher than for some alternative fuels. The poor rarely have access to formal credit, however, and must buy in instalment's imposing very high costs. As a result, the share of households purchasing biofuels tends to be higher than if credit markets were efficient and, in some cases, the poor are actually paying more for their cooking than the rich.
Superficially the financial burden of energy use would seem to be less of a women's issue than the labour burden of coping with biofuel scarcity. This would indeed be the case if households were corporate economic units, typically headed and supported financially by a man. Women not only contribute more to household income than is often recognised, however, but their income is more likely to be devoted to the day-to-day expenditures needed to run a household, including the purchase of fuels such as kerosene, charcoal and wood. Moreover, there are many female-headed households, and these households tend to be poor. Currently, the intrahousehold effects of energy cost-increases are poorly understood, but it is perfectly possible that future research will indicate that women also bear a disproportionate share of the financial burden.
Cooking. The following characteristics are all generally desirable, particularly for biofuel users: -Greater fuel economy;
-Less exposure to smoke; Less supervision;
-Lower overall cooking time; Less dirt;
-Greater reliability; Improved safety;
-Greater flexibility (eg adaptable to different
energy sources and power requirements); Greater convenience.
Lighting - electric. After cooking, lighting is often the most important energy service provided directly to households. Different households do have different lighting needs: some may want light for reading, others for sewing, and others only for conversing and moving around.
Lighting - kerosene. There are technical obstacles to achieving (relatively) high efficiencies in low power lamps: high efficiency requires a high temperature which tends to involve a high power. Moreover, the lamps most commonly used are very cheapt, and costly improvements are unlikely to find a market. The question is, are these obstacles insurmountable, or are they the result of a lack of any serious research and development efforts? And even if more efficient, lowpower kerosene lamps were more costly than existing models, under many circumstances, their promotion and even subsidization could be justified.
If the potential exists, considerable support could be given, both to developing such a lamp, determining more precisely where the 'market' could be, and what obstacles to dissemination can be expected. It is quite possible that if the potential for significant improvements can be found, the private sector will take the lead in developing and marketing better lamps. At the moment, there is no reasonably priced kerosene lamp combining the efficiency advantages of a pressurized lamp, with the lower fuel consumption of a wick lamp.
Lighting - LPG. LPG (liquified petroleum gas) is being used increasingly for lighting, and provides a quality of light almost as good as electricity and adequate for reading. Although the fuel is relatively cheap, the supplies are often not available or reliable. The financial outlay for the stove and gas bottle is beyond the means of the poorer urban households.
Heating and cooling. Space heating and cooling requirements vary considerably across the Third World. By and large, air-conditioning and space-heating appliances are limited both geographically and economically. On the other hand, many cooking fires also serve to keep people warm, and people do suffer discomfort as a result of excessively high or low indoor temperatures.
There exist relatively low-cost architectural options which could improve indoor climates considerably. Such 'passive' energy options receive little attention, either in government or private housing. Whether or not this can be termed a household-energy problem, it is one for which energy-related improvements could make a difference. Also, it is in areas where biofuel or coal fires are used for heating, that some of the most severe indoor air-pollution problems likely to arise.
Electrical appliances. Electrification provides households with the opportunity to use a wide variety of additional appliances, if they can afford them. Many of the more common devices purchased by lower-income electricity users are relatively simple, for example cooling fans, and pose few problems (though some can create a significant fire risk). Once major appliances, such as televisions and refrigerators, are being purchased, however, energy-supply problems can arise.
Government household energy policies
Electricity. Funds have commonly been devoted to rural electrification, electricity subsidies, and petroleum-product subsidies, rather than to biofuel cooking stoves, and renewable-energy programmes.
Statistics compiled by the World Bank would seem to suggest an overall annual subsidy of several billion dollars for household electricity alone.
Supplying households is expensive; not only because their unit demand is low, leading to high distribution costs and losses, but also because households demand a large part of their electricity in the evening, creating a demand peak well above the system's base load. While donors have not subsidized household electricity directly, undoubtedly, donor support to the electric power sector has helped foster such subsidies. It is difficult to justify a general subsidy for household electricity in a poor country. Regarding public benefits, subsidizing electricity is an extremely inefficient means of easing the pressure on wood resources by inducing biofuel users to switch fuels.
Rural electrification does little to alleviate the household energy problems described, except that the quality and quantity of household lighting is increased. Moreover, the costs of rural electrification are high, especially in poor, low-density areas. In rough figures, the cost for densities greater than 20 users per kilometre of line is likely to be of the order of US$600 per user, but for lower densities, costs can rise to several thousand dollars per connection. Moreover, transmission and distribution losses can be very high. As a means for dealing with household-energy problems, rural electrification can be an expensive solution to a small part of the problem.
Kerosene and LPG. In rural households, whose income is often predominantly 'in-kind', kerosene for lighting can be a significant cash expenditure. Overall, a kerosene subsidy is not an efficient means of helping the poor, though it has the attraction of being visible. LPG tends to be an upper-income fuel, in part because of the high device costs, and subsidies are less likely to help the poor.
There is no evidence that petroleum-product subsidies were ever successful in affecting the rate of deforestation, though there are indications that, in some countries at least, the price of kerosene does affect fuel choice.
New and renewable energies. For household applications, biomass digesters, solar cookers and solar water-heaters have all had their proponents. None of these technologies truly proved themselves when oil prices were high, and it is hardly surprising that, by and large, their short-term outlook is gloomy now that oil prices are low.
Global environment implications
The global climatic implications of household energy use are extremely complicated, but potentially significant. At the moment, not enough is understood to say whether or not there is a sufficient link between household energy and greenhouse gas emissions to constitute a problem. At the very least, however, there are scenarios wherein changes in household energy patterns would have global warming implications.
A final global problem deserving mention is the potential crisis due to the depletion of nonrenewable energy resources. The emerging consensus would seem to be that there is no serious energy-resource problem of global proportions, and that global warming poses a far more serious problem. The consensus view has made so many radical shifts in recent decades, however, that complacency is unwarranted.
Household energy programmes
Just as biofuel is the major household fuel, so the biofuel stove (often little more than an open fireplace) is the major household-energy technology. While early claims regarding the inefficiency of traditional biofuel stoves were exaggerated, they are justified.
Over the past decade, there has been a shift of emphasis from increasing efficiency, towards decreasing smoke exposure and lowering greenhouse-gas emissions. Like efficiency targets, such narrow goals place an undue burden on stove programmes. If the requisite characteristics of an 'improved' stove are defined independently of user preferences, then the chances of meeting the perceived needs of the households decline significantly.
Many past attempts to improve household enduse technologies have been hampered by an overly narrow focus on stoves, and stove efficiency in particular. There are many other means of saving cooking fuel, and of improving household-energy systems.
It is difficult to attract finance, including donor finance, for dispersed, low-key, low-cost programmes. Many stove programmer have encountered this difficulty, which is, potentially, an even larger obstacle to other household-energy improvement efforts.
As emphasized by ESMAP, governments are unlikely to be effective stove producers and sellers. Ultimately, stove programmes are probably best implemented by NGOs, and less formal stove improvement efforts should be led by entrepreneurs, artisans, and householders themselves. The challenge for governments and donors is to provide effective support for stove improvement without taking control of the processe.
This article was abstracted, by the Editor, from a report first published in 1993. To obtain a copy, write to: SKI, Box 2142, S-10314, Stockholm, Sweden.