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History of solar cooking in India

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India, Asia's second largest country, next to China, has also the second largest number of solar cookers. The situation in India is more complex than that of China. More is also known about Indian programs. The Third World Conference on Solar Cooking was held in India, permitting the history and progress of solar the technology's uses to become better known around the world.

An official government report informs the reader that the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES), Government of India, was established in 1982, first as a Department and later as a Ministry. The Ministry's mandate extends well beyond solar cooking, including fuel efficient wood and charcoal stoves, power from other renewable sources, energy from industrial wastes, research and development in a number of related fields (photovoltaics, biogas, and pollution prevention, for example). MNES began seriously to promote solar cooking in the early 80s, with an initial focus almost entirely on the box cooker.

The population of India is roughly 70% rural. MNES states that "cooking accounts for a major share of the total energy consumption in rural homes (Singhal, correspondence, 2003, p. 1). Sources of that energy are largely fuelwood, animal dung, or crop residues, all of which emit smoke, pollute the atmosphere, and are deterimental to health and safety of family members, particularly women. Fuelwood is become scarcer each year. FAO data show that 21.6% of the Indian land mass is forested, and conservation efforts are in place to reverse previous loss. The effort is affected by the large and dense population and a slowing but still substantial birth rate (continuing to increase at 1.7% per annum, or 17% in a decade). Solar cooking has been viewed as one way to alleviate a number of India's problems and as such was supported by government efforts.

Considerable research and development was done in the 1980s, expanding much earlier work done in various research institutes as far back as the 1950s. In in- and out-offashion manner, early interest waned, only to be revived in the 80s. The box cooker chosen for promotion was a square, flat topped box with single reflector, large enough to hold 4 Indian pots (which are relatively small in size, compared, for example, to African pots). A subsidy of about 30% was provided by the central government; the subsidy subsequently was reduced to 15%. The scheme was implemented through state government agencies established to promote renewable energy. Local NGOs and women's groups were called on to aid the promotion.

An important hallmark of the scheme was governmental development of quality standards, along with intensive efforts to recruit entrepreneurs for the manufacture of devices. The incentive scheme continued until 1993-4 when it was discontinued for box cookers. In the 12 years of subsidies, about 340,000 cookers were sold. Some attempts was made to encourage users by preparing cookbooks, and holding demonstrations in cooker use, but apparently the effort was not adequate. Studies showed that over 70% of the owners were not using the cookers, citing climatic conditions, time constraints, nonavailability of appropriate cooking sites, etc. Repair of damaged cookers was also a problem as after-sale service was not in place. All those factors apparently contributed to the decision to end subsidies.

In 1994, India's program turned more towards commercialization with manufacturers being encouraged to improve cooker design and to sell through their own commercial networks, instead of the government agencies as had been the case previously. The idea was to harness the power of the market place and encourage adaptation to particular market niches with different models for different parts of the country and segments of the population. The subsidy began to go to manufacturers to encourage awareness building, demonstrations, training, repair and other services. That support was available on a 50% cost sharing basis. Interest free loans were also made available to wholesalers or to institutions to supply cookers to employees. Loans at attractive rates were available to manufacturers for new equipment. The government also subsidized creation of showrooms in the various states of India for renewable energy products of all kinds, including cookers. The sites will not only be showrooms but will provide repair services for users. Some states also offer consumer subsidies.

This more market oriented approach is seen as responsible for the development of improved models, with the down side being reduced sales as the newer models are more expensive and the subsidies of the past to users has been ended. However, the average sales per year still averaged 25,000 new cookers, largely to urban people, since the unsubsidized price is high for most rural dwellers. India is clear that more affordable but durable models are needed for rural areas. Limited use of the CooKit dates to the 1996 conference when many saw this very low cost device for the first time.

More recently, the parabolic concentrating cooker has been introduced to India, both the household size and the far larger, community sized installations. Most of the parabolics introduced are those promoted by EG Solar and the Sheffler group, both German organizations (see the section on Multi-National Promoters). EG Solar uses several types, the dish (in several sizes) for household use, while ULOG-Sheffler promoters focus on large community cookers, now being manufactured in India. The latter can be used to cook indoors, by focusing the large parabola through a wall aperture and then reflecting that onto cooking pots. The most unusual are steam solar cooking systems which link a number of tracking solar dish concentrators to create high pressure steam for cooking large quantities of food. Other new developments in large scale cookomg are under study, as well, including hybrids which have back-up oil or gas burning systems.

India is also undertaking intensive study of the potential of other uses, such as solar food processing, to tackle the problem of excess food at harvest times, which goes to waste if not preserved in some manner. Common usage in India is open air drying which is unreliable and unsanitary. The Government of India has offered subsidies of up to 75% to companies to design and create systems for this purpose. During the subsidy period, 60 solar drying systems and 70 timber seasoning plants were installed in the country. Similarly, solar air heating to dry products such as spices by using roofs as solar collectors has been attempted as a means to slow use of electricity or fossil fuels. This government is making renewable energy a major component in its development planning.

In addition to governmental activities, a number of organizations have pioneered solar activities in various parts of India. As described in the introductory chapter on solar cooking history, the Third World Conference on Solar Cooking was held in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu State, in 1997, on the campus of Avinashilingam Institute for Home Science and Higher Education for women, Deemed University. Coordination of conference planning and implementation was under the direction of the Institute's Chancellor, Rajammal P. Devadas, a towering figure - though short in stature - in education of women and in solar cooking promotion. An impressive display of Indian made solar cooking equipment, plus contributions from other nations, comprised the exhibit area.

Participants from every Indian state meant that solar cooking was widely noticed on this huge continent. Impressive representation of many governmental units was present. The conference attendees were treated to heartfelt welcome and gracious hospitality by the young female students of the Institute. In addition, attendees enjoyed superb Indian food during their stay in Avinashilingam quarters! But most importantly for purposes of this report, theoretical and applied research and development regarding cooking devices and dissemination/promotion issues were presented by and for the international group gathered from around the world for the occasion, making powerful learning and networking possible.

Representatives of two state government agencies, in Maharashtra and Gujarat, both responsible for implementing the national government's subsidy programs, spoke at the conference, describing the operations in detail, describing marketing trategies, product design issues, successes and challenges still ahead in solar cooking promotion, giving conferees a better picture of how the system was working throughout India.

Institute faculty and students had instigated considerable solar cooking training and promotion in the South India area; Institute members has also studied the design and assessed the efficiency of various stoves. Dr. Devadas herself, a home economist by training, had conducted considerable research on the important topics of nutritional value of solar cooked food, as compared to traditionally prepared. A representative of the Indian Institute for Technology, H.R. Garg, has contributed substantial scientific knowledge about the field at world conferences, along with a number of other Indian scientists who have presented their findings at the various world meetings.

A number of programs have been established in India in collaboration with overseas agencies. As described above, many large scale parabolic installations for mass cooking are in place in India. The German ULOG group began this work in 1990 in several places in Gujarat State. Since the technologies were relatively new and not previously evaluated, a rigorous evaluation was conducted, a relatively rare part of solar cooking projects. The work is described in a paper presented at the Coimbatore conference. Thirty-one community kitchens had been installed in'social service institutions. The evaluation was focused on four topics: technology, acceptance, energy saving, and financial efficiency, and was conducted 5-6 years after the installation. The findings were not all positive: 2/3 of the kitchens were not in use, largely because appropriate servicing and repair was not available. A number were used regularly, however. The technical efficiency of the equipment was acceptable, when problems with maintenance were solved. Regarding acceptance, most policy makers were committed to the technology, but disappointed about the repair need, while kitchen workers were more satisfied (less smoke, easy cooking, etc.) Energy saving per kitchen amounted to a ton of wood per year, though with increased use, much more could be saved. Complex calculations about payback time and financial savings in this field (cost of wood, climatic circumstances, etc.) are very difficult to calculate, involving many complex variables. Under optimal circumstances, the ULOG kitchen could achieve payback in half a year, according to the study, but if used irregularly or inefficiently, are not financially viable. The ULOG group are to be congratulated on this ambitious and rigorous evaluation, relatively rare in the solar cooking world.

In other parts of India, larger installations designed by Wolfgang Scheffler of the ULOG group (see the section on Multi-National Promoters) are in place. In 1997, a large system was installed at the Bramakumari Ashram, Mount Abu, India, equipped to prepare food for 1,000 persons. Recently a yet larger installation was built at a different Bramakumari location, Taleti, also near Mount Abu, this one cooking for 10,000. The devices are solar steam cooking systems, with units made up of 14 dish concentrators, each of which has an 11 square meter reflecting surface. Six such units are connected to a central steam pipe which transfer cooking power to the kitchen. This system was for some years called the world's largest solar cooking installation. The most recent addition to the list of large solar steam kitchens was completed in October of 2002. Located in the Andrha Pradesh town of Tirmula, this latest is the biggest yet, capable of cooking up to 30,000 meals a day. In each of these instances, the Government of India has been an active participant, as described above, in collaboration with members of the ULOG group.

Smaller organizations also promote solar cooking in India. The Barli Institute for Rural Women in Jhabua District of Madhya Pradesh demonstrates and uses solar collectors, both household and community sizes. The School of Energy and Environment Studies at Devi Ahilya University in Indore has worked closely with the Institute to serve rural women. An outstanding aspect of this program is an emphasis on extended training and motivation, deemed necessary to change long held cooking habits for new.

Beginning in the 1980s, the Institute used solar box cookers for its own cooking and later, two Scheffler type reflectors with thermal heat storage capability. Many women were interested, and therefore the next phase was placing household size parabolics in villages served by the Institute. With assistance of the German agency, EG Solar, 50 parabolics are now in place in the area. The programs of the Institute have received recognition from UNESCO and UNEP for outstanding environmental achievement. But most importantly, the village women, comfortable with using the cookers, tout the technology as improving their lives. (Bahai International Community, One Country. Vol. 1, Issue 3, Nov.-Dec, 2002.)

Avinashilingam Deemed University staff members have conducted substantial research over the years. One particularly well done evaluation focused on solar cooking acceptance in Andhra Pradesh. A mailed questionaire was sent to a purposively selected sample, in an area where much solar cooking was underway. The findings included:

  • families were using cookers at an acceptable usage rate, most daily, a few twice a week;
  • other uses besides family food preparation included baking cakes and biscuits for sale,
  • roasting spices, making ghee, and storage of spices in rainy weather; taste and

consistency of food was excellent; and most were clear about its economic value. The researchers concluded that solar cooking was proving to be ideal in this developing country with a low per capita income.

Another project is largely the work of Ms. Didi Contractor, an American woman, long resident in the north western state of Himachal Pradesh. The area extends from southern plains up to the Shivalik Mountains and across the Himalayan watershed into an arid region bordering Tibet. As a part of larger efforts to improve long term sustainability of this mountainous region, Ms. Contractor and a number of other agencies and government units, had in 1985 created an organization, the Society for Environmental and Rural Awakening, to work on a range of issues.

The Ghauladhar Solar cooker, was one of the initiatives of the group. The cookers are box type but fixed in the ground on a brick structure, facing south. Two standard sheets of glass cover the box which has an inner matte black oven made from used ghee or oil containers. The oven part is tightly sealed with fabric, and rice hulls are used as insulation between the metal oven liner and the brick stand. An opening on the front of the box permits the food to be put in and removed. The stoves, using locally available material, are made by villagers with few tools and a day of training. A waterproofed fabric cover protects the stove when it is not in use.

Early support for the work was provided through an Indo-German Project. However, that support was not sufficient to sustain the proposed promotional scheme, called "the solar seed centers" in which satellite centers in neighboring villages would be created in places where women naturally congregate. Training would be provided in response to demand stimulated by demonstrations and considerable follow-up of trainees/new cooks was considered essential. No information exists on how the project developed beyond its initial stages.

In another part of that same area, an interesting project has been in place for some years. The isolation of the area makes communication difficult and information scarce, but fortunately, a book by the well known Swedish sociologist, Helena Norberg-Hodge tells the early story of solar promotion in the area around Ladakh. The book, called Ancient Futures (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books (1991), tells a fascinating story of the author's life and work in Ladakh, sometimes called Little Tibet, and described as a "wildly beautiful desert land high up in the Western Himalayas" (book jacket). Ms. Norberg-Hodge has spent many years in Ladakh and the book is about far more than just solar cooking - indeed, more than just the area itself. She poses serious questions about technology and its impact, about modernization, about the meaning of life itself, all in beautifully thoughtful prose, well illustrated by personal encounters and with illustrative photos.

The landscape and very life of Lakakh is dictated by the seasons; it is scorchingly hot in summer and frozen solid for nearly eight months of winter. At an altitude of around 10,000 feet, agriculture consists principally of animal husbandry, with barley almost the only crop feasible. At lower elevations, fruit and vegetables can be grown.

Ms. Lakahk in 1978, then a well known part-time resident, began to work on obtaining government support for simple solar technologies. The first was the elegantly simple passive solar Trombe wall for heating houses, using South facing glass panels and black, heat absorbing walls behind it, which works well in Ladakhian winters.. Eventually she and her Tibetan colleagues formed the Ladakh Ecological Development Group, which promote appropriate technologies for the area, including solar ovens, water heaters, and greenhouses which permit year round cultivation of vegetables. The organization's headquarters models and demonstrates by using a wide range of renewable technologies.

She believes the group has been instrumental in instilling in local people an understanding of the importance of ecological perspectives in all development which will allow them a development path based on self-reliance and self-respect rather than dependence. She argues persuasively for understanding the interconnectedness of all life, a basic idea which is deeply rooted in Ladakhi culture, thus an idea is not new but ancient.

The Ladakh Project continues, and specific solar cooking projects have been a part of its work in several communities. An intensive evaluation of the solar projects in the area was carried out in 1992 by American anthropologist, Cynthia Hunt. The project was health oriented, with the solar work only one portion of the whole. Rather simple solar technologies take advantage of Ladakh's most abundant resource: solar power, cookers, water heaters, room heating systems, greenhouses had been installed in numerous refugee camps and villages of the area.

Ms. Hunt was asked to conduct the evaluation, which took place over several years and several trips to this hard-to-reach part of India. Part of the research project produced a case study of adoption of technology in Ladakh, focusing on solar cookers. The sample covered 26 villages in central Ladakh. The study is one of the most carefully done of its kind, well conceptualized, meticulously carried out, artfully communicated. The objective of the study was to examine this specific form of appropriate technology, in terms of its adoption and impacts on this traditional culture.

Using archival resources, surveys, repeated observations, interviews, and participatory research techniques, the work of Ms. Hunt provides valuable insights into the process of introducing new technologies. A basic consideration was, of course, the technical capacity of the cookers, particularly as perceived by the user, since she found that usage was linked to perception as well as actual performance. Linkage to need was crucial as well, as were aspects of the alternatives (for example, the unpleasant smell of kerosene). Where fuel was a serious problem, acceptance was higher as would be expected. In general, she found a strong willingness to use new technologies which worked well and met economic household goals. Even in remote Ladakh, change is everywhere and while many still resist, the inevitability of modernization and other influences of the rest of the world is acknowledged. Understanding that, competent facilitation towards acceptance of this specific change may ease the transition to more general societal changes.

This document, much in the spirit of the work of Norgard, is well worth studying, both for its competent use of evaluative methods and for the cultural sensitivity displayed in this description of introducing technological interventions into a deeply traditional setting.

In a different part of India, an interesting example of solar cooking usage occurred, described in the November '01 SCI Review. Dr. Girja Sharan describes the use of solar cookers in response to a major earthquake which occurred in Gujarat State in January of 2001. A number of agencies and individuals worked collaboratively on the effort. The Khadi Village Iinudstry provided a number of cookers, which were given free through financial assistance of the Gujarat Energy Development Agency. Personnel from the Indian Institute of Management (an institution which trains civil servants) were key organizers. The Cummins Foundation of Pune provided financial support.

Teams went to the earthquake area quickly and set up 100 meal solar kitchens, in a small community 45 kilometers from the quake's epicenter which was not receiving help as quickly as the nearer towns. After receiving an urgent request from yet another unserved community, they quickly provided a similar program in the second community, home of a large boarding school. Teams speedily taught local women to make lunch and dinner for many people every day until more permanent arrangements were made for victims. Participants slept in the open along with those displaced by the earthquake.

The idea of making solar cooking equipment available for emergency situations has been discussed frequently by promoters. (See the case study of Turkey below, for additional information). Examples of use in such situation are rare however, therefore this is of particular interest.

An overall summary of the use of solar cookers in India was provided at the Coimbatore meetings by representatives of the Gujarat Development Agency, one of the state nodal groups responsible for implementation of the national subsidy schemes. Looking back on the experience of nearly two decades of the Solar Cooker Promotion Programme, first launched in 1982, the authors come to a number of conclusions: 1) solar cooking is appropriate climatically and in terms of fuel scarcities, 2) solar cooking is far cheaper than electricity and more economical than LPG or kerosene, and 3) a subsidy to manufacturers was a good idea but not implemented sensibly in some cases. Too many entrepreneurs began manufacturing cookers before the market was prepared to purchase their output. Some would-be buyers were not even able to locate stores where the stoves were for sale. The researchers also concluded that users were not given sufficient training in the use of the new technology, nor were services for repair or refitting available to the user. They conclude that additional retail outlets, complete with repair service, were needed, as were extensive demonstrations and training to maximize use and benefits.

Before leaving this account of solar cooking activities in India, additional mention should be made of the manufacture of solar cookers in India. In addition to the manufacture of SunOvens, mentioned above in the section on Multi-Nation Promoters). The Solar Cooking Archives list 29 manufacturers of box cookers in India and another seven producing parabolic cookers, more than found in any other nation. Most appear to be manufacturers of other consumer goods, who added solar cookers to their repertoire when the government encouraged them to do so {http://www.solarcooking.org} .

[Information for this section was taken originally from State of the Art of Solar Cooking by Dr. Barbara Knudson]

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