Another Epic Greenfail

The number of people in the world who can be said in “energy poverty,” that is, with little or no modern energy available, is around 3 billion. About 1.5 billion people, according to some estimates, have no electricity at all, and most of the three billion rely on extremely low-tech or non-tech sources of energy for basic needs of cooking and warmth, meaning they burn, wood, straw, or dried animal dung. The smoke and air pollution from these low- and no-tech energy sources are terrible for human health, and for the local environment (especially if people are chopping down every tree in sight).

Naturally Western eco-imperialist do-gooders are horrified at the idea of building power plants, dams, and electricity grids for the world’s poor, and offered as their magic solution “Clean Cookstoves,” complete with a “public-private partnership” launched by Hillary Clinton! These mini-stoves were supposed to provide “clean and cheap” energy for very poor people in the developing world. Almost 30 million of these magic stoves have been distributed since 2010.

Here’s what the Washington Post reported about them last fall:

Of those 28 million cookstoves, only 8.2 million — the ones that run on electricity or burn liquid fuels including liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), ethanol and biogas — meet the health guidelines for indoor emissions set by the WHO. The vast majority of the stoves burn wood, charcoal, animal dung or agricultural waste — and aren’t, therefore, nearly as healthy as promised. Although these cookstoves produce fewer emissions than open fires, burning biomass fuels in them still releases plenty of toxins. “As yet, no biomass stove in the world is clean enough to be truly health protective in household use,” says Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California at Berkeley and the leading health researcher on cookstoves.

That’s not the only problem with the stoves. Some perform well in the lab but not in the field. Others crack or break under constant heat. The best cookstoves burning clean fuels won’t protect poor families from disease if those who use them continue to cook over open fires as well — which many do. “They’re not the big solution, unfortunately, that we thought they were going to be,” says Rema Hanna, a Harvard economist who led “Up in Smoke,”the most extensive field study to date on this subject. . .

“We know what works,” says Kirk Smith, the Berkeley professor, who has worked on cookstoves for 35 years. “It’s gas or electricity or both. Why are we pushing these strange new gadgets that we never use here?”

There’s really no mystery here, is there?