Role of processed fuels in cooking energy transitions

Role of processed fuels in cooking energy transitions
Abhishek Kar1*, Sumeet Mohanty2, Lokendra Singh1, Anupama Arora1, Ibrahim
Hafeezur Rehman1, Ram Chandra Pal1
1 The
Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi, India
2 Indian
Institute of technology, Kharagpur, India
* Corresponding Author +91-9899972727
In the backdrop of a dominant regime of direct combustion of fuel wood and
agricultural residue as cooking fuel, a transition experiment on processed fuel is
being carried out in a village in India by The Energy and Resources Institute
(TERI) supported by Government of India. Direct combustion of low density
agricultural residues leads to significantly low energy yield per unit volume of
biomass consumed. It is “expected” that a value chain for processed fuel (through
densification of agricultural residue to yield high energy density low volume mass
through Pelletization process) catering to cooking fuel need of rural households
can contribute to sustainability transition. In the context of renewed interest in
improved stoves, processed fuel (pellets) can “improve” performance of such
stoves because of consistency in size, energy content, and moisture level resulting
in increased fuel efficiency along with reduction in indoor air pollution. Many
households in developing countries are forced to purchase fuel wood to
supplement their non-monetized biomass fuel supply. Hence, pellets can
potentially become a commercially sustainable substitute to the existing
traditional fuel wood market regime. Further, biomass like fallen leaves, which
otherwise remains unutilized and rots in the open creating a threat to public
health, can be utilized as feedstock for pellet. Conceptualized as an experimental
project related to sustainable transition, Strategic Niche Management (SNM)
framework has been used to “understand” the innovation and identify its strengths
and short-comings by understanding the interaction between three internal niche
Keywords: fuel processing, biomass, pellet, rural energy, SNM
1.0 Introduction: One of the key concerns in related to transitions to more a sustainable
energy sector has been fuel and technology switching in rural households of the
developing world (Rehman et al., 2010). Without access to modern cooking and heating
energy technologies and fuel, domestic households are forced to use unprocessed solid
biomass in traditional mud stoves (Ravindranath and Balachandra, 2009). It is felt that
while renewed interest in research and investment in cooking devices is pertinent
(Venkataraman et al., 2010), it is also worthwhile to focus on processing of biomass
which can further “improve” performance of these stoves for rural households (Rehman
et al., 2010, Sharma, Mukunda and Sridhar, 2009). Romjin, Raven and Visser (2010)
have raised concerns on sustainability challenges of “structural over-usage” of
unprocessed biomass for meeting household energy needs which is characterized by low
efficiency and negative public health and environmental impacts (Ravindranath and
Balachandra, 2009).
The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) has undertaken an “experimental project”
(Kemp, Schot and Hoogma, 1998) involving research, production and dissemination of
pellets (processed biomass based cooking fuel) targeted at rural households in Uttar
Pradesh state of India with financial support from Government of India in 2010.
With potential to contribute to sustainable development, the experiment has been
conceptualized as a “sustainability experiment” and analyzed in this paper using the
Strategic Niche Management (SNM) framework to “understand” the innovation
(Witkamp, Raven and Royakkers, 2010). To this end, the paper gives an overview of the
dominant regime and landscape factors (section 2) and an introduction to the pelletization
technology and its significant social and environmental benefits (section 3). In section 4,
analyses of the dynamics played by the three inter-related processes which are important
for niche development (Berkhout et al., 2010) in context of the project is carried out apart
from describing the “protection” offered under the experiment (Raven, 2005). In
conclusion (section 5), the paper builds a case for about the need for further research in
pelletization technology and implementation of multiple pelletization projects to create a
technology niche which in the long run can contribute to sustainable transition.
2.0 Existing regime characteristics- wide spread unprocessed solid biomass usage as
cooking fuel: Across the developing world, women are dependent on collected or
purchased biomass as cooking fuel. Non-monetized cooking fuel comprises of fuel wood
-defined by Saxena (1997) as fallen wood, smaller pieces, twigs, wood shavings, saw
dust, bark and roots which have no alternative applications, unutilized (not suitable either
as feed or fodder) agricultural by-products like rice straw, mustard stalk etc., and dried
cattle manure is used as cooking fuel by rural households in India and across the
developing world (Ravindranath and Balachandra, 2009). Increasingly, more and more
households are also forced to purchase hardwood due to scarcity of fuel wood in vicinity.
This existing bioenergy based cooking regime is “dominated” by a combination of
structures, culture and practices such as lack of cash surplus and absence of reliable
supply/access to enable switch over to modern fuels like LPG or processed biomass
based fuel (Raven, Bosch, and Weterings, 2007, Ravindranath and Balachandra, 2009).
About 85% of India’s 159 million rural households and 21.5% of 63 million urban
households use solid un-processed bio-fuels in traditional mud stoves for cooking
purpose (Parashar et al., 2005, NSS, 2010).
Such cooking practice is characterized with incomplete combustion resulting in emission
of pollutants such as particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen & sulfur
oxides (NOx and SOx) and other toxic compounds including poly-aromatic hydrocarbons
(PAHs) (Smith et al., 2005) which mostly occurs inside poorly ventilated kitchens in
rural areas across developing countries (Desai et al, 2004). Indoor air pollution (IAP)
increases risk of pneumonia, acute lower respiratory infections (ALRI) among children
under 5 years and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) among adults over 30
years of age (Arcenas et al, 2010, Rehfuess et al., 2006). Approximately half a million
premature deaths and nearly 500 million cases of illness are estimated to occur annually
as a result of exposure to smoke emissions from biomass use by households in India
(UNDP/ ESMAP, 2003). It has also been reported that women and children spend
significant time in collection of cooking fuels which have negative health and safety
implications (World Bank, 2003).
3.0 Alternative to existing regime: Pelletization as a form of biomass processing
3.1 Continued dependence on biomass fuels: Considering IEA (2007) estimates
that dependence on unprocessed solid biofuels for cooking is expected to continue
in foreseeable future (632 million Indians estimated to be dependent in 2030) in
conjunction with expected population explosion (and consequent stress on natural
resources), it is imperative to look into biomass fuel processing for such rural
households (Rehman et al., 2010).
3.2 Biomass processing: Biomass processing in the context of cooking fuel for
households involves low cost densification low grade fuel wood (Saxena, 1997),
agricultural residues and other bio-waste such as fallen leaves to develop a fuel
block which can be “cleanly” combusted to extract energy for cooking or heating
application (Sharma, Mukunda and Sridhar, 2009). One of the most common
densification process is known as pelletization which, as defined by Mani (2005)
is a mechanized method of densifying biomass such that the bulk density becomes
more than 500 kg/m3 and the moisture reduces to about 8% on a wet basis.
Manufacturing of pellets involves drying of biomass, grinding, and the pelleting
Pelletization of biomass waste and its emergence as competitor to purchased fuel
wood may be envisioned as a transition from this existing “dominant regime” of
unprocessed biomass usage as cooking fuel. While research on fuel densification
has been carried out earlier (Saxena, 1997), the scope of research was targeted at
heating applications for processing industries. Under this transition experiment,
the focus is on densification of locally available low cost biomass for usage as
household cooking fuel in a decentralized manner.
3.3 Characteristics and advantages of pelletization: During a given task of boiling
water in a forced draft stove, performance of pellets was compared with hard
wood purchased locally for various aspects such as reduction in indoor air
pollution and reduction in fuel feeding iterations. The results are discussed in
relevant sections related to the advantages of pelletization.
characteristics like packing density of the fuel and moisture content
also affect emissions during combustion (Sharma, Mukunda and
Sridhar, 2009, Atkins et al., 2010). Processed fuel, in form of pellets,
are generally more suitable for burning in stoves because of greater
density, consistency in size, and lower moisture level thus reducing
emissions. Exposure of cook to black carbon concentration, which is
an important indicator of indoor air pollution, reduced by 50% when
pellets were used in lieu of wood. Size: Atkins et al (2010) indicated that homogeneous size
distribution of wood fuel can significantly increase combustion
efficiency. Further, smaller wood pieces (difficult to chop
manually) with higher surface area to volume ratio expedites
burning as more fuel surface area is exposed to the combustion
chamber temperature resulting greater heat absorbance per unit
time (Yang et al., 2005). A survey commissioned by TERI in
the project area indicated that manually chopped wood pieces
(greater than 10 cm in length, 5 cm in width and 3 cm in
height) are used for cooking in rural households. TERI pellets
have homogeneity in shape (cylindrical) and size (2 cm length
and 1 cm diameter) resulting in improved combustion. Low Moisture content: Atkins et al. (2010) has reported that
biomass with high moisture content emits significant amounts
of smoke before it can burn properly, as the fuel temperature is
unable to attain the requisite high combustion temperatures
quickly. Gathered biomass or even purchased hardwood has
high moisture content in comparison to pellets which being
produced though a mechanized exothermic process has
moisture content less than 10% (Shokansanj and Felton, 2006).
Greater the moisture content in the fuel during combustion
more will be the heat of combustion1 which is waste energy as
it converts the moisture to water vapor and does not contribute
to cooking thereby reducing energy efficiency (Van Loo and
Koppejan, 2006). TERI pellets have average efficiency of 9%
to 11% during packing.
Usage of waste biomass: Ravindranath and Balachandra (2009)
estimated that the total agro-residue production in India exceeded 450
Mtons/year out of which the biomass available for energy purposes
amounts to 150 Mtons out of which only 11% is being utilized.
Surplus and unused biomass is usually burnt in the open field, causing
air pollution. Pelletization of the un-utilized biomass locally and its
usage as clean burning cooking fuel will create a local level market for
the waste biomass, providing an incentive to farmers to sell their
unused biomass, instead of burning it. Biomass sources like fallen
leaves of mango and mahua trees which have no food or fodder value
have been utilized in pellet production. TERI pellets have 45% saw
dust, 5% rice husk and 25% fallen leaves and the rest of previous cycle
pellet powder residue and binders.
Easy of usage Reduced fuel feed iterations: Chin and Siddiqui (2000)
established an empirical relationship between die pressure
applied during biomass densification (which implies increasing
packing density2 of the densified biomass known as pellet or
briquette) and combustion rate in a standard combustion
Moisture content increases the specific heat capacity of the fuel because additional amount of heat is required to vaporize the water present
thereby taking more time to reach ignition temperature leading to poor combustion in initial burning period.
Packing density simply refers to the mass per unit volume of the solid, in this case the fuel
device. It is observed that as die pressure increases, it leads to
a decrease in the combustion rate and hence increase residence
time. TERI pellets require 14% less fuel charges for a given
task in comparison to hard wood purchased from local market. Easy handling and storage: Past research (Bergmann, 2005;
Mani, 2005) suggests that pellets, unlike raw biomass have a
high packing density hence, rigidity which leads to lower
transportation costs as well as less handling problems, thereby
making it an ideal fuel for domestic stoves. Lehtikangas (1999)
has reported that biomass pellets are less susceptible to
biological decay in comparison to unprocessed biomass due to
lower moisture content, thereby prolonging their storage
4.0 Application of SNM framework to assess success potential of the experimental
project: While SNM has been traditionally been used to analyze historical case studies
“in retrospective” it has a role of technology management strategy of ongoing projects
(Raven, Bosch, and Weterings, 2007). Transition literature identifies three interrelated
processes - voicing and shaping of expectations, network formation and learning &
articulation that influence the potential success of the introduction of an innovation (here,
pelletization) in the context of niche development (Raven, 2005). In the following
sections, each of these three processes has been discussed in the context of this ongoing
experimental project apart from highlighting how the experimental project was offered
protected space.
4.1 Voicing and shaping of actor expectations: Like any other experimental project,
actor expectations about commercial potential of pellets played an important role
in the early stages of the experiment which enabled investment of resources
(including time and money) when no market existed for pellets (Raven, 2005).
Playing the role of an action research organization, TERI has been instrumental in
voicing concerns (“articulating expectations” in context of SNM) about biomass
scarcity and the urgent need to explore biomass based fuel processing for
household cooking fuel in different forums in terms of technology development
and commercial sustainability. As suggested by Raven, Bosch, and Weterings
(2007), it attracted attention and resources of policy makers and government. As a
result, the project sponsor- GoI believed in the societal, economic and
environmental benefits of decentralized fuel processing and its commercial
potential and hence agreed to generously fund a pilot demonstration project. The
village entrepreneur, a businessman, believed in the shared (with TERI) vision of
a potential market for low cost pellet produced from locally available waste
biomass and shared initial project cost. However, it should be noted that
“protection” by project funds in terms of substantially covering capital costs
lowered entrepreneur’s risk exposure (Raven, 2005). Initially demonstration and
trials for various combinations (of raw materials) for pelletization was carried out
over a period of three months involving 0.4 tonnes of pellets across 150
households. In helped in voicing and shaping of expectation in terms of:
Identification of target customer: During the first round of user trials
actors were encouraged to express their opinion of the commercial
potential of these products. It was communicated by the end users
(actors who are critical for sustainability of such initiatives) during
first round of trials that pellets will be purchased only by those
households who purchase hard wood from market to meet entire fuel
need or to supplement their gathered biomass. Families using nonmonetized biomass gathered locally articulated their decision of not
intending to switch over to monetized pellets irrespective of its current
and future benefits. Hence, the initial entrepreneur (actor) expectation
of catering to rural households became more “specific” (Hoogma,
2000) in terms of catering to only those “households who purchase
fuel wood” where subsequent user trials were conducted.
Creation of price ceiling: During user trials in 45 such households,
majority of end users articulated there inability to spend more than
their then current expenses for cooking fuel irrespective of its
characteristics like lesser smoke. Such price sensitivity created a price
ceiling of 100 USD/tonne for pellets which then was the rate of locally
available hard wood making pricing expectation more “specific”
which led to re-structuring of pellet composition.
Positive response during trials: As more experiments (user trials)
supported expectations (of a comparatively clean burning and easy to
use fuel at the same price of hard wood), “quality” of expectations
increased (Raven, 2005; Hoogma, 2000). During user trials as both
end users expressed willingness to purchase pellets and the
entrepreneur being confident of producing pellets within the price
Increased demand for user trials: Almost 120 more end users who
purchase hardwood expressed interest to be part of user trials and
insisted on getting “samples” before they make purchase decisions. It
created more “robust” user expectations about pellets as “larger
number of relevant actors shared the same expectation” (Raven, 2005)
of ‘commercial potential of pellets.’
As suggested by transition scholars, this process of “articulating” and
“negotiating” shared expectations provided direction to the experiment
(Witkamp, Raven and Royakkers, 2010). As a result, almost 100
households, who earlier used locally purchased hard wood as cooking
fuel, have switched over to pellets (repeat purchase) within a period of
six months having purchased more than 1100 kg at market price (zero
subsidy) of USD 1000 per tonne as on 31st November 2010. Overall, it
may be deducted that experimental project had fairly specific and
quality expectations which were growing increasingly robust
increasing the chance of successful niche development (Hoogma,
4.2 Actor network formation: The importance of creating networks in terms of
reducing complexity, scale, investments, risks, and uncertainty by involving
actors from different domains in the project has been extensively highlighted in
transition literature (Mourik and Raven, 2006; Raven, Bosch, and Weterings,
2007). Under this experimental project, conscious decisions were taken to actively
engage multiple actors besides TERI, entrepreneur and end users as it improves
the scope of niche development (Raven, 2005) in the following ways:
Identify and sensitize potential actors to be part of the network:
TERI has made conscious efforts to ensure than potential stakeholders
from societal, policy and technology domains like key policy makers
and global development institutions like UNDP and DFID officials are
aware of the vision and activities of this experimental project through
periodic briefings and site visits. TERI also requests project sponsor to
undertake multiple mid-term project reviews as the review team
consist of subject experts and influential policy makers who can
potentially play active role in the network. Publications and
dissemination of information (like presentation of this paper in this
conference on ‘Innovation and sustainability Transitions in Asia’)
regarding this project is also being carried out to get expert inputs.
However, it is felt that there is need to more actively engage local
public representatives and community leaders.
Continuous engagement and cross relation amongst network
actors: End user and production teams used to interact on a regular
basis during user trials. However, reluctance of entrepreneur to get in
touch with end users post-sales has been reported and corrective
actions are currently being taken. Further, cross-relation between
actors, sans TERI, has been almost absent which can be a major hurdle
in improvement of network alignment (Raven, 2005).
In conclusion, the existing actor network is heavily TERI dependent
with low cross relationship between other actors which requires
corrective action.
4.3 Learning processes: Learning in the context of SNM is focused on the changes
executed in the process of the experiment (technology development, actor
interaction etc.) which is aimed to couple with opportunities and overcome
oppositions/barriers in the environment outside of the local project for better
functioning of the innovation (Mourik and Raven, 2006). Under the project, three
key learning processes as mentioned by Raven, Bosch, and Weterings (2007)
have been discussed below in context of the experimental project:
Techno-economic optimization: In order to keep the pellet
production cost within the price ceiling set (please refer to 4.1.2), the
composition of pellet was significantly modified. The proportion of
relatively expensive biomass like rice husk (costing 55 USD/ tonne)
was reduced from 25% to 5% while proportion of freely available
fallen leaves (collection cost of 22 USD/ tonne) was increased from
5% to 25%. As Raven, Bosch, and Weterings (2007) suggested, such
adjustment of technology to increase chance of successful diffusion.
Alignment between technical and social aspects: Berkhout et al.
(2010) has highlighted the importance of alignment of user preferences
with technology specifications. Raven (2005) has also highlighted the
important role played by users in the learning process of an
experimental project which is demonstrated in the following section in
terms of “negotiating” the packaging type.
Packaging: During the first round of sales, the
pellets were packaged in 25 kg sacks which lowered
per unit cost of packaging and distribution. It was
reported that some households required 15-20 days
to consume the pellets. Because most rural
households have damp conditions due to thatched
house, the pellets absorbed moisture and performed
poorly in later stage. By early next year, pellets will
also be sold in 5kg jute bags. This has also triggered
unintended add-on benefit of higher demand as
consumers without significant cash surplus prefer
the smaller packs.
Ignition Style: User feedback pointed out to
difficulty in ignition of pellets and requirement of
large quantities (in some cases exceeding 25 ml;
kerosene costs 0.25 USD/ litre) of kerosene, the
technology usage manual was revised and it
recommended usage of 10- 20 gm of twigs during
lighting the stove along with pellets which
generated enough heat for pellets to reach ignition
Reflexive action: Laak, Raven and Verbong (2007) define reflexive
action in transition literature as attention/inclination to question
“underlying assumptions such as social values”, and the willingness to
change course if the technology does not match these assumptions.
Under the project, no such reflexive action was demonstrated.
It may be concluded that while there is evidence of first-order learning, defined by
Raven (2005) as learning about the effectiveness of a certain technology to
achieve a specific goal, there is significant scope of improvement in terms of
‘second order learning’ of reflexive action .
4.4 Protection from regime: As Caniels and Romijn (2008) points out that the
rationale of protection is to create a space for experimenting with and executing
the innovation process without being subject to immediate market pressures, this
experimental project was protected in multiple direct and indirect ways.
Supply side: The project offered direct protection to ensure regular
supply of pellets both for user trials and off the shelf stock in an
environment without any immediate and direct market demand which
are described below: Capital cost subsidy: As it was a government sponsored
project, local entrepreneur did not have to pay the capital cost
of the pellet machine or initial establishment cost like power
connectivity cost and hence has the liberty of conducting
variety of resource intensive experiments to develop quality
pellets instead of focusing of achieving “break even”. Further,
this enable reduction of pellet cost to not only to maintain the
price ceiling but also to make profit of about 120 USD/tonne.
As Raven (2005) pointed out, such protected space created on
the basis of expectations (by the sponsor) enabled technologists
to focus on development of a radical technology which had no
“contemporary” market value thereby providing “temporary”
exemption from dominant regime rules. Technical handholding: Technical and marketing experts
from TERI were engaged in hand holding of the entrepreneur
and his team across the entire value chain- from machine
selection to home delivery of pellets. It helped build local
capacity to carry out pelletization as a professional commercial
Demand side: TERI also executed other activities in the same area
which helped indirectly in creating demand for pellets which are
described below: Awareness about benefits related to clean cooking:
Extensive awareness generation campaigns under the project
were carried out to sensitize local community about benefits of
clean cooking which otherwise would be significantly
expensive for pellet entrepreneur. Dissemination of forced draft stoves: Forced draft cook
stoves with top-loading system (which require small size wood
pieces) were disseminated to almost 1000 households in that
area under other project activities. These beneficiaries faced a
manually tedious job of chopping wood and hence households
who were then already purchasing wood expressed interest to
purchase small sized pellets which will save the hard work at
no extra price.
Such unique local conditions helped in development of a technological
niche for the “radical innovation” of pellets which helped users to
create/learn about a new need-pellets and the technology provider to
receive user feedback leading to improvement of quality and reduction
of cost (Raven, 2005; Mourik and Raven, 2006). Lessons drawn from
this experiemental project can help create a market in the long run
where a technologically capable entrepreneur can supply pellets in a
commercially sustainable manner thereby replacing the dominant
regime of biomass under-utilization and usage of wood as cooking
5.0 Conclusion: Like any other “radical innovation”, pelletization would require a long
process (even more than a decade) of mutual adjustment and adaptation to form a part of
the then dominant regime of household energy consumption behavior (van Eijck and
Romijn, 2008). As Raven (2005) also pointed out niches are “at the cosmopolitan level
of- and above- the local practices” of experimental projects, there is need to investigate
the barriers to horizontal scaling of the “experimental project” to a scale which is
“beyond the local level” to be categorized as a “niche” (Mourik and Raven, 2006). SNM
can significantly contribute to this process by managing the interaction between the
different local projects, and by managing the interaction between these local projects and
the wider selection environment -regime and landscape (Mourik and Raven, 2006). As
single experiments do not result in regime change (Raven, 2005), it is necessary to
involve more actors for further research in pelletization technology and implementation
of multiple pelletization projects across various agro-climatic and socio-economic zones
to enable comparison between local practices and development of generic lessons. As
Raven, Bosch, and Weterings (2007) suggest, it is also critical to engage in ‘aggregation
activities’ like technology standardization, documentation and dissemination of best
practices to “gradually add up to a new technology trajectory” which is envisaged to
result in sustainable transition in the long run.
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