Household energy use

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Bioenergy > Issues > Development > Bioenergy for household energy use

Note: See also the BioenergyWiki page Bioenergy in rural development.

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Women and girls in parts of developing countries spend many hours collecting wood for cooking in the home. (Flickr Creative Commons image by Genocide Intervention Network).

Biomass and other forms of bioenergy are important in terms of household energy use throughout the world. The burning of dung, firewood (woody biomass), charcoal and other forms of bioenergy have long been important for cooking and the heating of homes.



  • Biomass is an important source of household energy for many people around the world, especially in rural communities of developing countries such as the global South, and may serve as the main source of energy for perhaps half of all households worldwide.[1] Unfortunately, the use of biomass can lead to several serious problems and challenges.


Traditional biomass

  • The burning of biomass as an energy source for heating or cooking can contribute to deforestation and indoor air pollution. The smoky open fires used for cooking in enclosed spaces generate soot and particulates that can contribute to respiratory diseases.
  • The gathering and transportation of biomass often inflicts heavy labor burdens, primarily on women. Also, in extreme cases, such as in refugee camps in Sudan and Chad, it has been reported that there are major threats to the safety of women and children who risk being beaten, raped or killed when leaving such camps in search of firewood.[2]
  • Gathering of biomass may also be associated with loss of vegetative cover and habitat loss for species.

Alternative technologies

  • Alternative energy technologies can help alleviate many of these problems. Some examples include using improved cooking stoves or solar cookers, or switching to other cleaner-burning fuels -- although all of these alternatives may be prohibitively expensive for poor families to adopt.
Improved biomass cookstoves
Simple fuel efficient stove. Creative commons image by Genocide Intervention Network
  • Biomass such as wood and charcoal are traditional cooking fuels. One approach to improving indoor air quality and reducing the amount of biomass needed, is to improve the efficiency of these stoves.
  • There are a variety of improved cookstoves available, although they face challenges in terms of dissemination into the market.[3]
    • Improved cookstoves are often more expensive, making purchasing them difficult for poor families.
    • Subsidizing stoves has been used as a successful strategy, although governments and organizations should be careful not to significantly distort the market through such measures. See this Cookstoves and Markets (PDF) report for more information.
    • Families often do not understand the health problems associated with indoor air pollutants and the women who are most affected are usually not the decision-makers for household expenditures such as improved cooking stoves.
  • The available improved cookstoves reduce emissions and are more efficient.[4]
    • According to Cookstoves and Markets (PDF) one of the available stoves, the Envirofit, "reduces 1 ton" of greenhouse gases "per stove annually and requires 50% less biomass fuel." This stove boasts a reduction in emissions of 80%.
Solar cookers
Solar Stove being used in Brazil.
  • Solar cookers are devices that concentrate the rays of the sun to heat and cook food. Such devices can reduce the need for gathering firewood and other biomass for cooking needs, providing more time and security to the lives of women. The use of solar cookers also reduces exposure to indoor air pollutants.
Ethanol stoves



  • The Partnership for Clean Indoor Air
    • "The Partnership focuses on four priority areas which have proved to be essential elements for sustainable household energy and health programs in developing countries: (i) Meeting Social/Behavioral Needs; (ii) Developing Local Markets; (iii)Improving Technology Design and Performance; and (iv) Monitoring Impacts of Interventions."[8]



  • Burning issues: tackling indoor air pollution, 7 May 2011 by The Lancet: "According to WHO, 2 million people die as a result of the smoke generated by open fires or crude stoves within their homes every year. Indoor air pollution has been definitively linked to lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and pneumonia, the risk of which is doubled by exposure to indoor smoke. More than 900 000 people die from pneumonia caused by indoor air pollution every year. 500 million households worldwide—roughly 3 billion people—rely on solid fuels, such as wood, animal dung, or coal, for cooking and heating. These fuels are usually burned in a rudimentary stove, or in a traditional open fire. It need not be a problem, at least in terms of health. But only assuming the fuel is completely combusted—wood must be dry, and the stove must work efficiently—and there is plenty of ventilation, a spacious chimney, or a sizeable window. In those places where the use of solid fuels prevails, however, these conditions rarely apply, and the consequences can be severe."
    • "Yet, 'despite the magnitude of this growing problem' notes WHO 'the health impacts of exposure to indoor air pollution have yet to become a central focus of research, development aid, and policy making'....But the past year has had some encouraging advances."
    • "In September, 2010, the UN Foundation launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves....The Alliance—a public-private initiative—brings together partners from the range of specialties across which the issue of indoor air pollution sprawls. There is public health, of course, but also energy, international development, female empowerment, climate change, technology, and business."
    • "The real benefits will be seen by switching to cleaner fuels and cleaner stoves. Improved stoves—those fitted with fans, for example—combust fuel more efficiently, have lower emissions, and require shorter cooking times."[9]
  • Biowaste briquettes fuel drive to save trees, 22 February 2011 by SciDev.Net: "Banana stems, maize and other crop waste will be turned into charcoal briquettes in Uganda in an effort to reduce the number of trees chopped down for cooking fires."
    • "The project, funded by the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), will train 600 farmers across the country to make briquettes using portable metal kilns that can be moved between farms, according to Maxwell Onapa, deputy executive secretary of the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST)."
    • "A lack of modern and affordable fuels, such as gas, electricity and solar power, makes wood charcoal and firewood the preferred sources of domestic cooking fuel, but this is damaging the environment through deforestation and soil degradation, said Onapa."
    • "Frank Muramuzi, executive director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, warned: 'The project may not be sustainable because if they run out of the agricultural waste to manufacture the charcoal briquette, people will go back to cutting trees.'"
    • "But Jane Nalunga, a senior training officer at the National Organic Agricultural Movement of Uganda, said that removing agricultural waste and turning it into energy will reduce soil nutrition."[10]


  • Cookstoves: The Secret Weapon Against Poverty and Climate Change, 4 May 2010 by Clair Marrey at HEDON Household Energy Network: "Excerpts from the Ashden Report:'Our calculations suggest that a global programme to manufacture the half-billion improved stoves needed to convert the world’s poor to safer cooking could save hundreds of thousands of young lives a year - and at the same time cut global greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of up to one billion tonnes of CO2 a year.'"
    • "Despite their growing popularity, the acceptance of improved stoves can be a problem. One study in Mexico of early Patsari stoves found that 50% of women abandoned them in favour of their old, more dangerous stoves. GIRA worked closely with users to improve the design, and 70% of families now use their Patsari stove on a regular basis. This highlights the importance of looking at both the technology and building a relationship with the users."
    • "Although many women dislike the smoke, for some it has a value. For instance, keeping away malaria-carrying mosquitoes and killing bugs that lurk in their thatched roofs."[14]
  • World’s Pall of Black Carbon Can Be Eased With New Stoves, 8 March 2010 by Jon R. Luoma for Yale Environment 360: "Two billion people worldwide do their cooking on open fires, producing sooty pollution that shortens millions of lives and exacerbates global warming. If widely adopted, a new generation of inexpensive, durable cook stoves could go a long way toward alleviating this problem."
    • Although the solution is simple, "[r]esearchers have found that it can be difficult to convince people to switch from traditional cooking methods to more advanced stoves, for a variety of reasons that range from uneasiness with unfamiliar or finicky technology, to upfront costs."
    • "Some scientists now estimate that small, solid particles of black carbon are responsible for about one-fifth of warming globally and, as such, are the second-largest contributor to climate change, after carbon dioxide gas."[15]
  • Haiti's Rebuild May Be Biochar's Big Breakthough, 4 March 2010 by TreeHugger: "Biochar, the 'co product' of burning wood or agricultural waste in a pyrolitic (oxygen free) environment, has garnered both praise and criticism for its possibilities as a CO2 sequestration tool."
    • "WorldStoves, a company that makes a number of pyrolitic stoves, has partnered with the NGO International Lifeline Fund and a private Haitian company to bring its 'Lucia' stove designs to Haiti. In Haiti, the use of wood for charcoal for home cooking needs is widespread, which has led to a continuing cycle of deforestation and soil [degradation]."
    • "What makes the Lucia stove so magic is that a Haitian woman or man could cook for a five-person family using just about 300 grams of twigs, groundnut shells, rice husk or dung."
    • "[If] biochar is included in the UN's Certified Emission Reductions (CER) and Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) schemes, creating it in cookstoves and sequestering it in soil could help Haiti economically as well."[16]
  • Smoke from home fuels tied to emphysema, 25 February 2010 by Reuters: "People who burn wood or other biofuels for heat or cooking may have a heightened risk of emphysema and related lung conditions, a new study suggests."
    • "Biomass refers to biological materials that can be burned for energy, including wood, crops and animal dung. They are major sources of energy in the developing world, and are thought to be used for cooking and heating in half of homes worldwide."
    • "These latest findings strengthen the evidence that exposure to biomass smoke is a risk factor for [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)]".[17]


  • With better stoves, UN aims to cut risk of murder, rape for women seeking firewood, 16 December 2009 by UN News Center: "The United Nations today launched a pilot project to provide fuel-efficient stoves to some 150,000 women in Sudan and Uganda to cut the risks of murder, rape and other violence they face in gathering firewood, while at the same time protecting the environment."
    • "'Women and girls should not have to risk their lives and dignity, and precious trees should not be lost, in the simple act of trying to cook food for their families,' WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said. 'The SAFE stoves launch will help protect them and the environment with practical and urgently needed solutions.'"[18]
  • Launching of the ‘National Biomass Cookstove Initiative’ by Indian Government, 3 December 2009 by HEDON Household Energy Network: "The Indian Ministry of New and Renewable Energy launched a New Initiative on Improved Biomass Cookstoves 'National Biomass Cookstove Initiative' on the 2nd of December 2009 in New Delhi."
    • "A large section of [India's] population – 75% of the rural households and 22% of the urban households, according to the National Sample Survey’s 61st survey -- still uses biomass for its cooking needs. An estimated 80% of the residential energy in India comes from biomass, much of it burnt in traditional chulhas."
    • "[P]roviding a clean cooking energy option for these households will yield enormous gains in terms of health and socio-economic welfare of the weakest and the most vulnerable sections of society. At the same time, the cleaner combustion in these devices will greatly reduce the products of incomplete combustion which are greenhouse pollutants, thus helping combat climate change." [19]


  • Bamboo as an alternative renewable energy resource for households, 12 December 2008 by HEDON Household Energy Network:
    • "Rajesh Bajpai and colleagues write that bamboo 'with over 5000 applications, should be considered as the best amongst other known biomass resources, but, it is still not used extensively. This is the world’s largest grass and already known to us for its thematic uses like in construction work, furniture, utensils, fiber & paper. It has got huge potential to bring revolution as a bio-energy resource. Time has come to explore its usage as a renewable energy resource. But, it is not something newly explored; it is already tested but needs huge awareness buildup among the common people considering it's importance as a biomass energy resource, environment protector and poverty alleviator. This is Bamboo. Although a non-wood plant it is called as tree.'" [20]
  • Alternative Fuels Take Root in Refugee Camps, 9 December 2008, by Carnegie Council Policy Innovations:
    • "Families in Darfur have traditionally cooked with wood over open flame, but the practice has become linked to many problems. Women are raped and assaulted while collecting firewood. The environment is degraded. Women suffer respiratory illness from cooking smoke, and open flames pose a hazard in crowded camps."
    • "In response, humanitarian organizations are introducing alternative fuels and energy technologies to Darfur and refugee camps worldwide, and businesses and relief organizations will come together this week at the first Beyond Firewood conference in New Delhi, India, to discuss energy-related ideas and products."
    • "Back in Darfur, communities have continued to rebuff solar cooking. Ms. Patrick surmises that this resistance is due in large part to 'parachuting' — NGOs dropping solar cooking technology into the camps, and doing little in the way of training or raising awareness in a culture used to cooking over an open flame and to the smoky flavors produced by firewood."[21]


  • Solar lifeline saves Darfur women. 12 September 2007 by CNN, reported that "For the 2.5 million people who have fled the four-year conflict in war-torn Darfur, refugee camps in eastern Chad hold the promise of a safe haven....But, once there, it's the women refugees' role to find wood and water. To do this, they have to leave the camps and walk for many miles," making them "vulnerable to beatings, rape and murder at the hands of roving Janjaweed patrols and local villagers, with whom they compete for scanty resources."
    • To improve this situation, the nonprofit organization Jewish World Watch is working with Dutch organization KoZon to promote solar cooking, which has been adopted for cooking lunch and dinner by refugees, initially at the Iridimi refugee camp in Chad. The women's time has also been freed up for them to devote to other enterprises.
    • The project's organizers hope to influence the situation at other refugee camps; one was quoted as saying, "I would hope that our little project was a catalyst for the UN High Commission for Refugees to wean the relief organizations off wood and onto solar cooking."



See books, reports, scientific papers, position papers and websites for additional useful resources.

  • Poor people’s energy outlook 2010 by Practical Action, 2010. "The report proposes an ecosystem of government, civil society and private organisations working together towards creation of universal energy access by 2030."
    • "This publication will be of interest to anyone seeking to better understand energy access and its role in development at a human scale."

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