Cooking Technology In Indian Homes: Can Electricity Take The Place Of LPG?

Anand Parthasarathy

Jul 17, 2023, 07:00 AM | Updated 01:44 PM IST

From firewood and LPG stove to an electric induction cooktop: Can the transition  happen in the Indian kitchen? (Photo: Centre for Science and Environment)
From firewood and LPG stove to an electric induction cooktop: Can the transition happen in the Indian kitchen? (Photo: Centre for Science and Environment)
  • Even two years ago, with rising LPG cylinder prices, it became cheaper to cook using electricity for many Indian households.
  • Electrical appliances like induction cooktops are mostly an urban phenomenon.
  • The vast rural hinterland still uses solid fuel, like wood, and LPG or biogas where available.
  • Experts suggest India cannot meet its net-zero emission goals unless fossil-fuel-based options like cooking gas are ultimately phased off.
  • An inflection point was reached in 2021 when the price of an LPG (liquified petroleum gas) domestic cylinder crossed Rs 860.

    A study by the Officers’ Association of the Kerala State Electricity Board   revealed that for those consuming up to 300 units of electricity every month, it would work out cheaper to switch to electric alternatives like induction cookers.

    Those who use one LPG cylinder per month for cooking require only four units of electricity per day. Studies in other states came to a similar conclusion.

    A few days ago, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) organised an online discussion to explore various challenges to adoption of e-cooking in rural and urban India and what regulatory frameworks need to be adopted to encourage its use across all social and economic classes in the country.

    The discussion had a sense of urgency for multiple reasons:

    A third of the world’s population, or nearly 2.4 billion people, still lacks access to clean cooking solutions, which in turn causes damage to the climate, local economies, and public health.

    Globally, some 2.3 million people die every year because of indoor air pollution — mostly due to wood-basced cooking.

    The scenario is no different in India where, according to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), about 120 million (12 crore) households,  making for over 56 per cent of the households in rural India and around 15 per cent of urban India, still use some form of kerosene or biomass to cook food.

    Some 600,000 premature deaths every year in India are attributed to indoor air pollution.

    Successive governments have addressed the issue, trying to encourage cleaner cooking fuel adoption — from the Rajiv Gandhi Gram LPG Vitrak Yojana (RGGLV scheme) of 2009 to the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) of 2016.

    Over 10 crore households are currently covered by PMUY, and according to the Petroleum Planning & Analysis Cell (PPAC), LPG is used by some 30 crore households.

    Toilet-linked-biogas cookstoves have been in use since the 1960s, but as the CSE webinar revealed, most of the 5 million biogas plants in villages are not functioning anymore.

    Sadly, none of these well-meaning schemes have succeeded in completely switching to cleaner cooking fuels. Reasons include a lack of strong LPG distribution networks in rural areas, the high price of LPG refills, and the sustained withdrawal of subsidies.

    The price of LPG for domestic consumption has tripled in the last eight years. 

    As a result, says Noble Varghese, Deputy Programme Manager (Renewable Energy) at CSE, over half of the households under the PMUY scheme have not refilled their LPG cylinders and approximately 50 million beneficiaries still use biomass as primary fuel.

    Approximately 10 per cent of urban and 57 per cent of rural Indian households primarily rely on solid fuels — particularly in East Indian states like Odisha, Jharkhand, and Bihar, where over half of all households use solid fuels as primary cooking fuel.

    Varghese suggests that considering the high prices of oil and gas — the  import bill is in the region of $13 billion every year and constitutes a tenth of India’s energy imports — LPG, a fossil fuel that requires heavy imports, cannot be the only clean cooking option for the country in the coming decades.

    India’s aspiration for net-zero emission by 2070 needs another alternative.  The country’s resolve to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal SDG 7 and to provide clean cooking fuels for all by 2030 is an even more pressing deadline.

    Is Electric Cooking Viable?

    Electric cooking (e-cooking), with benefits like improved indoor air quality, is an attractive direction for India’s clean cooking efforts.

    Recent policy announcements that make provisions for subsidy on induction cookstoves are clear signals of governments thinking in this direction.

    Sunil Mani, Programme Lead, Centre for Energy, Environment, and Water, says: At current LPG prices of around Rs 1,100 for a 14.2 kg LPG refill, e-cooking will be cheaper than LPG for households that pay for electricity at less than Rs 9 per unit.

    The initial investment in induction stoves and suitable utensils could set you back Rs 4,000. This is a barrier and, consequently, 85 per cent of all the e-cooking users belong to the urban upper-middle class.

    It is also significant that in states where electric tariffs are lower, like Delhi and Tamil Nadu, adoption of e-cooking has been faster.

    So, clearly, pushing urban consumers who enjoy more reliable electricity to make a switch to e-cooking is a less daunting challenge for the government. The thrust can start there, though electric cooking has as yet not achieved the economics of scale anywhere.

    Experts agree that for rural India, where the government has already made a big investment in promoting LPG under PMUY, the first step may be to restore subsidies so that LPG refills are perceived as good value and are available for less than Rs 500.

    Where and when rural electric grids are more ubiquitous and reliable, it will be the time to encourage households to switch from LPG to e-cooking, not before.

    Electricity In The Kitchen

    Going electric in the kitchen. Clockwise from top left: basic electric coil stove; milk boiler; induction cooktop; microwave oven; smart cooker
    Going electric in the kitchen. Clockwise from top left: basic electric coil stove; milk boiler; induction cooktop; microwave oven; smart cooker

    Electric cooking is an omnibus term that includes induction cooktops, electric rice cookers, toasters, mixer grinders, and electric kettles.

    According to a market survey in India this year by the German development agency Deutsche Gesellschaft Fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), as reported by their Delhi-based adviser, Florian Postel, induction cooktops are seeing the highest demand in South India — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala — and the west — Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Rajasthan.

    The sweet spot seems to be 1,200 watts and 2,000 watts, and the price ranges from Rs 1,800 to Rs 4,000.

    Leading brands include Prestige, Butterfly, Preethi, Panasonic Bajaj Electricals, Stovekraft, Philips, and Havells, with WonderChef and Borosil among more recent entrants.

    What Is Induction Cooking?

    Induction cooking involves the induction heating of cooking vessels rather than relying on indirect radiation, convection, or thermal conduction.

    A cooking vessel with a suitable base is placed on an induction stove, which has a heatproof glass-ceramic surface above a coil of copper wire with a low radio frequency alternating electric current passing through it.

    The resulting oscillating electromagnetic field induces an electrical current in the vessel. This large eddy current flowing through the resistance of a thin layer of metal in the base of the vessel results in resistive heating.

    A cooking vessel must be made of, or contain, a ferrous metal such as cast iron or some stainless steels. The iron in the pot concentrates the current to produce heat in the metal.

    Consumers tend to compare the total cost of ownership (TCO) of an induction cooktop against the cost of using unsubsidised LPG. Piped natural gas (PNG) is slightly cheaper, but availability even in metros is rather thin.

    As things stand, LPG wins over induction, but if cooking gas prices continue to grow, the value proposition of an electric option will look brighter.

    Many urban households who can afford the initial asking price of an induction cooking device tend to hedge their bets — retaining their LPGF stove and shifting some of their cooking to induction.

    Induction appliances have the added attraction of being currently the best electricity-driven technology for the kitchen, scoring over older electric rice cookers. The latter still compete in the Indian kitchen with that sturdy nonelectric mainstay: the pressure cooker.

    Also popular in cities is the microwave oven, whose basic function of rapid reheating has expanded to enable other kitchen operations like baking, by adding features like convection heating.

    A microwave oven heats and cooks food by exposing it to electromagnetic radiation in the microwave frequency range. This induces polar molecules in the food to rotate and produce thermal energy in a process known as dielectric heating.

    But the asking price of a microwave oven — Rs 10,000-plus for a 20-litre model — makes this a specialty device and not a factor in the debate of what technology works best in the kitchen.

    A milk boiler is another staple in Indian kitchens. But, though electric models have started appearing, most households go for the non-electric whistling type, preferring to place it on a gas or induction stove.

    The key findings at the CSE online seminar can be found in the three presentations linked here.

    Other Experts Agree

    The CSE is not alone in advocating a shift to electric cooking. A year ago in an opinion piece in the Economic Times, Professor Jyoti Parikh, Executive Director, Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe), New  Delhi, said: "What needs to be done to introduce electric cooking as a serious option is not as demanding as the  PM Ujjwala scheme but there are many challenges."

    Her suggestions are similar to the ones mooted at the CSE — strengthen the power system for 24x7 electricity, continue efforts for LPG or piped gas, but continue comparison with electricity options.

    She also suggests consideration of solar cooking as a possible third option.

    Her conclusion is worth repeating: "Both gas and electricity may be beyond the reach of the very poor in the near term till more or all people get out of poverty. But we are faced with sustainability issues for even the middle or lower middle class, and an alternative to excessive reliance on gas or LPG should be ready at hand."

    Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.

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