The Indian government wants us to ditch gas and use electricity for our cooking needs. It believes it’s going to be better for the environment. At least, that’s what it hinted at a conference conducted on World Environment Day (5th June).

So in today’s Finshots, we talk about e-cooking (electric cooking) and how it could face an even bigger roadblock than the transition to Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinders.

The Story

Do you remember Gopal from the story we wrote about artisans?

Well, in case you’ve forgotten, Gopal’s a local artisan from a small village in Karnataka. He makes wooden toys to earn a living. And the situation is such that he can barely afford to make ends meet. So the family has to find cheap ways to run the household.

For instance, let’s talk about cooking. Because wood is easily available, the family uses it as cooking fuel. It’s much cheaper than the gas cylinders. But, Gopal’s wife suffers from respiratory problems due to all the soot and smoke it produces. She sees her neighbours going through the same fate too.

So when she heard about the government’s plan to provide a subsidy for Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinders, she rushed to enrol the family immediately. After all, they’d get the gas connection, a stove, a free refill, and could get 12 cylinders a year at a subsidised rate. Her neighbours were signing up too.

This was precisely what the government wanted when it rolled out the scheme. It wanted people to switch from polluting fuel sources such as firewood, crop residue, kerosene and dung cake to cleaner LPG. For context, burning wood for fuel emits 5 times as much carbon (the main culprit of global warming) as LPG. Add to that the benefits of reduced deforestation and LPG is obviously the cleaner cooking fuel.

But here’s the thing. These LPG subsidies have hit a speed bump. When LPG prices crashed during Covid, the government cut back on subsidies too — from  ₹37,200 crores in FY19 to a measly ₹240 crores in FY22. It might’ve thought that cylinders had become affordable and didn’t want to keep spending money.

But the thing is, people’s incomes were also hurt quite badly during those years. And without much support, underprivileged households like Gopal’s may have dialled back on LPG use. They may have reverted to hazardous traditional cooking fuels. In fact, when the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) conducted a nationwide survey in 2021, it found that 54% of households that had LPG connections were also using firewood for cooking. Most of them complained about high gas cylinder prices as a reason for this switch.

Sure, the government could keep subsiding LPG cylinders. And it has ramped up subsidies again. But it also creates another dilemma — increased import dependency.

See, back in 2011 just 29% of the homes used LPG. And we could meet about 70% of our LPG demand through domestic production. But now, over 70% of homes use LPG as their go-to cooking option, and our production isn’t able to keep up. Just 40% of our needs are met domestically. We’re having to import most of it. And that could put a strain on the country’s finances.

So, what could possibly be a way out of this vicious cycle then?

Well, relying on electricity could be an option.

Okay, if you look at access to electricity as the basic step, then we’re headed in the right direction. We claim that 100% of our villages are now electrified. And while it doesn’t mean that every household actually enjoys electricity, the access has certainly improved. Gopal’s house has electricity now.

Then there’s the affordability factor.

If you ask around, you’ll probably hear people say quite confidently that using electricity for cooking is going to be way more expensive than LPG. Despite the price rise. But is it? Well, as per data from the CEEW research, if you assume subsidized LPG prices at ₹800, e-cooking will be a cheaper bet if the electricity prices are below ₹7 per kilowatt hour (kWh).

Now when I looked at my electricity bill in Bengaluru, I see that I’m being charged ₹7 per kWh. Does that mean I can save up a bit by switching completely to e-cooking?

Also, many states have been doling out electricity subsidies for their residents. Gopal could be a beneficiary of that. And it might further bring down the electricity tariffs and make e-cooking that much more cost-effective.

But wait…let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. There are some ‘ifs and buts’ here.

For starters, you have to remember that one reason that the government wants to shift to e-cooking is to go green and cut emissions even further. But, India’s electricity grid is still powered by fossil fuels. Also, we import quite a bit of coal to power our energy needs. So unless we make the transition to renewable energy, e-cooking could still contribute a fair bit to carbon emissions in its cycle.

Also, while we may claim fast-paced rural electrification, the folks at policy research firm Prayas Energy Group say that all these newly electrified rural households were allotted a maximum connected load of 500 watts. That means, if Gopal’s family tries to run all their electrical appliances at the same time, 500W is the maximum power their lines can handle. But, if you just look at an induction stove, it typically comes with a 2,000W capacity. Even an electric rice cooker has 700W. So maybe Gopal and others like him can’t actually power their e-cooking needs yet.

And sure, electricity tariffs might seem enticing. But what about the heavy initial investments consumers have to make? They’ll need new electric stoves and appliances. And a brand new set of compatible vessels too. Can Gopal’s family and his neighbours really afford that? Not unless the government subsidises this too.

Then there’s the mammoth task of changing perceptions.

Right now, only 5% of households in India experiment with e-cooking. And getting more people to try will be hard. Because if you ask lower-income households like Gopal’s, you’ll see that 68% of people don’t believe in or are unsure about the feasibility of e-cooking.

So yeah, if you put all this together, it does seem like the hurdles in making the shift to e-cooking could be a fair bit bigger than when we tried to shift towards LPG. And we’ll just have to wait and see what the government has in mind.

Until then…

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