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Combating Indoor Air Pollution: Cleaner Cooking Fuel For 300 Million In India By 2021

The use of traditional cooking fuels creates several problems, including deforestation, with a resultant loss of biodiversity and the elimination of carbon sinks which could offset global warming

Air pollution: Experts said that a policy on maintaining fresh air indoors is needed
  • 2.7 billion people globally rely on solid fuel for cooking
  • 30% of 4 million deaths due to indoor air pollution take place in India
  • India is set to surpass China as the biggest importer of LPG by 2040

New Delhi: Globally, there are approximately 1.4 billion people without access to electricity and 2.7 billion people who rely on solid fuel (wood, crop residue, dung and coal) for cooking. The use of these traditional cooking fuels creates several significant problems, including deforestation, with a resultant loss of biodiversity and the elimination of carbon sinks which could offset global warming. There are also an estimated 4 million attributed deaths annually due to the negative health effects associated with indoor air pollution. Approximately 30 percent of those who cooked with solid fuels (820 million people) resided in India alone.

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The use of solid cooking fuels creates several significant problems. In 2012, resultant indoor air pollution was the cause of more than 4.3 million premature deaths, more than 60 percent of which were women and children. In many parts of the world, women are responsible for the collection of firewood and are specifically impacted by this burden.

There is ample evidence of the health benefits associated with the use of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as a cleaner cooking fuel. In this context, various governments, including China, India, Guatemala, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Albania, Brazil, Mexico and Peru, have instituted programs aimed at replacing solid fuels with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and together represents approximately 45 percent of the world population.

India is set to surpass China as the biggest importer of LPG by 2040, as a driver to replace wood and cow dung for cooking. The fact that India has grown from 140 million ‘subsidised’ household connections in 2015 to 181 million was very impressive, however, the Indian government has now withdrawn the LPG subsidy programme. The future LPG demand may still hit 15 million tonnes per year. The cost of LPG is expected to increase with the growing demand. Therefore, security of supply and affordability of cleaner energy remains a huge challenge. In addition, there is pressure on accelerated implementation of cleaner alternatives to combat pollution, health and climate change.

Research and technology innovations are being vigorously pursued to develop and deploy “greener” solutions at mega scale and at speed. However, many proposed solutions are either in development stages or require a long time to become viable and commercially attractive, or they do not offer the speed and scale potential that’s urgently needed. For instance, extensive amounts of research and development have been undertaken on more efficient and less polluting biomass system designs, however, the affordability of such systems remains a big concern. Current research on liquid fuels is targeted at multiple options i.e. DME (Dimethyl ether), Liquefied H2, Ammonia, Bio diesel, Biogas, Charcoal, Methanol etc. In addition, extensive development on high efficiency biomass stoves, solar cookers continue.

However, most of these options need to meet affordability, sustainability, speed and the scale criteria. Secondly, each of the options will have new risks associated with them. For example, production of charcoal may result in accelerated deforestation, in turn, worsening the climate change position further.

The key question is whether a rapid transition to cleaner cooking fuels is possible now or if we must wait till 2030 or 2040 for new and viable technology options. If we must wait for 10 to 20 years to get to cleaner options, what irreversible damage would we do in the meantime? This is a more pertinent and pressing question.

The current “cleaner” cooking fuel model has either supply of LPG cylinders in the cities and the rural regions and / or piped natural gas in the cities. LPG is sold in kilograms while natural gas is sold in m3 (by volume) and LNG (liquefied natural gas) is traded in heat value (million British thermal units i.e. MMBtu).

In case of India, i.e. the LPG supply model, affordability is a critical consideration in adoption of LPG as a cooking fuel. Therefore, usually, the governments promote LPG through subsidies because the costs are higher than natural gas. For example, an LPG cylinder (14.2 kgs) costs around Rupees 900 (15 USD) which lasts between 30 to 45 days for a family of four. Therefore, the average monthly cost is between Rs. 600 (10 USD) to Rs. 900 (15 USD).

Natural gas consumption for a household with 4 people could be 15 m3 (standard metrecube) per month. Presuming natural gas costs of Rs. 20 per m3 (0.30 USD per m3), the monthly cooking fuel bill would be Rs. 300 (5 USD). One third of the LPG costs. The natural gas is either sourced locally or as regasified LNG. The LNG is traded in international markets in heat value MMBtu. 30 US cents per m3 of gas is equivalent to approx. USD $8 per MMBtu of regasified LNG or the locally explored gas. These economics suggests that regasified LNG prices of less than USD $24 per MMBtu would be at par with the current LPG supply costs in India. So, natural gas or regasified LNG is much more cost attractive than LPG.

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It is also a known fact that LPG extraction and refining contributes to SO2 (sulfur dioxide), methane and NOx (nitrogen oxides) emissions, while transport of the LPG contributes to carbon monoxide and CO2 (Carbon dioxide) emissions. The emissions from LNG value chain could be almost one third of LPG.

Although natural gas (consisting primarily of methane) generates fewer CO2 emissions per BTU than propane when burned, methane is a direct greenhouse gas when released into the air. One kilogram of methane released into the atmosphere produces the same effect on climate change as 25 kilograms of carbon dioxide. However, any methane leaks can be minimised and managed.

Natural gas is lighter than air while propane is heavier than air. This is important in the event of any leaks because natural gas will simply float away, while propane will collect near the ground or floor of a home. If a match were to be lit or a spark were to fall near exposed propane, it would create an explosion that could hurt or injure anyone close to it. So natural gas is much cheaper, safer and cleaner to burn, compared with LPG.

The implementation for city gas distribution is struggling to achieve speed and scale because the current piped natural gas implementation model is rather cumbersome and dependent on a high-pressure gas pipeline network. India has a network of 17,000 kms of existing high-pressure pipelines and primarily serves industry (power generation and fertilisers) and some domestic gas supply in the metro cities. Numerous projects are underway to install the new pipelines; however, execution timeframes are rather long, in most cases 5 to 7 years from concept to commissioning. Most of the high-pressure pipeline projects face tremendous challenges and constraints in execution due to regulations, litigation, tariffs, financing and social issues.

The long delays in the project execution results in very high capital spending making, in much case, the pipeline projects uneconomical. It is, therefore, almost impossible to achieve the speed and scale required. India’s grand CGD (city gas distribution) dream is most definitely stuck in the pipelines. Some of the secondary reasons are having congested cities with access problems and, therefore, industrial customers become an attractive choice for gas suppliers. Therefore, the high pressure pipeline based gas distribution model has many limitations.

A new gas distribution model needs to take shape i.e. a future cooking fuel solution is to have LNG distributed to cities without the need for extensive high pressure pipeline infrastructure. This may include as mall-scale LNG technology innovation being implemented at a macro scale. Small scale LNG regasification modules could be installed in cities with a population of up to 1 million. LNG could be trucked to these locations via roads, therefore eliminating the need for high-pressure gas pipelines. Small scale LNG regasification modules supported by large low-pressure pipeline networks made with plastics (PE or polyamides) or copper could be installed with relative ease.

LNG delivery trucks could also be constructed within a period of 2 years. There are approx. 500 cities with a population range between 100,000 to 1 million in India alone. In fact, these cities have many rural regions in a radius of 15 to 20 kms which could also be connected using low-pressure gas pipeline networks. Therefore, this CGD model could provide an opportunity to supply cleaner cooking fuel to millions in the neighbouring rural regions too, i.e. become a model for rural gas distribution (RGD) as well. It may be possible to achieve gas distribution to ~500 cities and ~50,000 villages in 2 to 3 years’ time i.e. by 2021. Therefore, the LNG to CGD and RGD model offers affordability, sustainability, speed, scale and safety. Perhaps it could be named as CGD to CRGD (City and Rural gas distribution).

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The policy and planning position need urgent attention.

If the SS LNG model is implemented, the health and environment will be the biggest winners. In any global initiative related to health and environmental improvement, Australia has an interest.

The LNG to CRGD supply chain and infrastructure required is an opportunity for ‘Make in India’ activities and will spur employment growth in a new value chain. There could be opportunities for more than 1,000 small and small to medium enterprises – for example, manufacturing of equipment and trucks, retailing stations, manufacture and/or installation of low-pressure pipelines, cooking equipment, operating resources etc.

The CRGD Infrastructure could also be a parallel carrier i.e. the network may provide an opportunity to lay water supply pipelines at the same time.

The longevity of this infrastructure is attractive too. When the high-pressure pipeline networks are installed (by 2030?) the small/mini scale LNG modules could be used as “peak shaving” or the regasification modules could easily be relocated to new locations. The low-pressure pipeline network could also be used for water distribution purposes.

LNG/gas demand, historically, has been dependent on seasonal variations which have resulted in low utilisation of the gas infrastructure, globally. Simple economics would suggest that lower utilisation of infrastructure would mean higher costs of gas delivered per unit. Natural gas as a cooking fuel would greatly stabilise the demand patterns over a year and help to drive lower delivery prices and, in turn, enhance affordability and uptake of gas. An increased uptake is an extremely critical element of a rapid transition to cleaner fuels.

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India could also develop and produce LNG from stranded gas fields and utilise it for CRGD networks.

The CRGD network would also complement solar initiatives and could support the solar micro grids into the future to eliminate intermittency issues.

Based on 15m 3 per family per month gas consumption, 300 million people could access gas with only 9Mtpa (Million tons per annum) of LNG. India already has plans to boost LNG imports from a current 20 million tons to 70 million tons in the next 5 years. CRGD, therefore, would complement the LNG expansion plan and would immensely contribute to higher utilisation of the LNG infrastructure. The question, however, is whether the policy and planning position will allow 25% of that LNG capacity to be reserved for CRGD only?

While it may take a couple of years to build initial delivery capacity, once the supply chain ecosystem is in full swing, acceleration of delivery capacity could be fast i.e. affordable cooking gas reaching 400 million+ with many other positive spin offs!

The new mega scale LNG value chain will provide employment or entrepreneurship opportunities for thousands of people in the rural regions of India.

The key enablers for this model are having satisfactory road conditions for transportation for trucks carrying LNG and ensuring that the gas network security exists.

Other countries may like to explore a similar LNG model.

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