From sun to plate: India yet to embrace solar cooking benefits

  • Majority of Indians rely on biomass or Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) for cooking meals, which adds to India’s emission burden. Solar cooking could be a viable alternative.
  • Currently, India does not have subsidies or incentives to promote domestic or community solar cooking.
  • The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy attributes the lack of subsidies to the absence of commercial models, while entrepreneurs in the field say an initial push with subsidies would lead to scale, market acceptance and further innovation.

For the past four years, at 9 a.m. every day, Reva Malik heads to the terrace of her independent house in Bengaluru. She sets up a solar cooker and places dishes in trays for a three-course meal. Unlike conventional cooking, she does not have to stir the veggies or add spices at intervals. Judging by the sunshine, Malik sets a timer and returns to other chores for the day. An hour and a half later, brunch for her family is ready.

Malik, who runs a consulting firm, started solar-based cooking four years ago, using her parents’ solar cooker, which had been unused for decades. The transition from LPG gas cylinders to solar-powered cooking equipment has not only reduced the family’s carbon footprint but also provided financial benefits. The solar cooker is a one-time investment of Rs. 18,000. Before shifting to solar, her family used at least six cylinders annually. But over the past four years they have not purchased a cylinder and she estimates savings of at least Rs. 28,000 on gas cylinders.

The transition to solar also necessitated a shift in her cooking style. The solar cooker is not ideal for making chapatis or deep-frying vegetables. “We happily changed our eating habits. Instead of chapati, we consume wheat in other forms such as dalia (a cereal dish from cracked wheat) or littis (wheat flour dough ball) that can be cooked in the solar cooker,” she said.

Reva took a leap towards solar cooking four years ago by utilising her parents’ solar cooker, which had been unused for decades.
Reva Malik’s solar cooker at her house in a small society off Sarjapur main road. She says that she saves money typically spent on gas cylinders by shifting to solar cookers. Photo by Reva Malik.

Despite its advantages, solar cooking has some limitations, such as longer cooking time and the need to cook outdoors in the sun.

To overcome these challenges, Saswat Sourav Panda, a resident of Puri, Odisha, integrated three solar-based cooking systems at his house for different cooking processes. A solar box cooking system is used for slow cooking, a parabolic concentrator for heavy cooking and a solar glass tube-based system for cooking even without sunlight. With a total investment of Rs. 31,000, Panda reduced his annual consumption of gas cylinders from twelve to four.

“Once I started to appreciate the enhanced natural taste due to slow cooking in solar, we switched entirely. What kept my family committed to solar cooking were the cost savings and the safety,” he told Mongabay India, emphasising his family’s dedication to using low-emission technology.

A push for solar cooking in the 80s

India’s Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES) promoted solar box cooking in the early 1980s with a subsidy of 30%, which was later reduced to 15%. The subsidy for box cooking, which continued until 1994, resulted in the sale of 3.4 lakh (340,000) solar cookers in India in that period of 12 years, according to Solar Cookers International, a U.S.-based non-profit. The government stopped subsidies for solar cookers in 1994 but continued with grants to the state Renewable Energy Agencies to cover the cost of education and publicity about solar cookers.

While the subsidies to encourage solar cooking emerged from the global oil crisis in the ’80s, as the oil crisis subsided, so did the country’s traction for solar cooking. “That’s why it took more than two decades for the Indian industry to domestically develop products like parabolic cookers which drastically reduced cooking time compared to box cookers,” said Vivek Kabra, founder of Simplified Technologies for Life (STFL), a startup that designs solar appliances.

An imported parabolic solar cooker, SK-14 Parabolic dish, manufactured internationally, did come to the market in the 1990s, costing Rs. 11,500. It reduced the cooking time but it did not solve the problem of cooking outdoors. “The rich who could afford to buy solar cooking equipment were hesitant to go outdoors (to cook) and the poor who were willing to cook in the sun could not afford the equipment,” said Deepak Gadhia, Chairman of Sunrise CSP India Pvt. Ltd, a company that manufactures solar thermal concentrators in India.

Solar tube cooking. Community solar cooking is observed in religious institutions like Mount Abu, Tirumala, and Shirdi, yet individual cases remain rare in India. Photo by Saswat222/Wikimedia Commons
A solar glass-based tube cooking set up at Puri which helps cooking when there is no sunlight. Photo by Saswat222/Wikimedia Commons.

Solar cooking equipment such as the Scheffler Concentrator, enables indoor cooking for a large quantity of people in a reduced time. While it is suitable for community cooking or for a large family, it is not ideal for domestic cooking, given its cost. “The product costs Rs. 3.5 lakh (Rs. 350,000) and can be a perfect choice for large-scale cooking,” said Gadhia, who manufactures the product.

Chicken and egg situation

Solar cooking equipment that cuts down cooking time and can be used indoors is yet to reach the market. Experts say that introducing subsidies for solar cooking equipment could be a game changer in bridging the technological gap. However, the absence of subsidies for solar cooking is due to the lack of established commercial models, Dinesh Dayanand Jagdale, Joint Secretary, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) told Mongabay India. “We don’t have the technology that can be acceptable in households. If there is a technology, we are ready to evaluate and introduce subsidies,” he added.

Kabra however provides a different perspective. “The initial push with subsidy would help create demand that can bring in the economics of scale, which in turn would drive more innovation and market acceptance. This is exactly what has happened with solar water heaters first and photovoltaic panels over the last decade,” he said. For both domestic and community solar cooking, subsidies will play an integral role in encouraging citizens to turn to this form of renewable cooking, said Kabra.

In 2015, Chaudhary Birender Singh, the Union Minister for Rural Development, observed the Solar Cooking Stove at the Rural Technology Park in NIRD Campus, Hyderabad.
In 2015, former Minister of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Chaudhary Birender Singh, visited the Rural Technology Park in NIRD Campus, Hyderabad to observe how the solar cooking stove functions. Photo by PIB/Wikimedia Commons.

The government has made attempts to generate a buzz around solar cooking solutions through competitions. In 2018, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) instituted grand challenge awards for designing solar cooking solutions at the household and community level and another one, in 2017, was carried out by the ONGC Energy Centre. However, these have been attempts towards creating awareness and enthusiasm among the masses, but there has been no concrete follow-up.

“There isn’t a single, dedicated policy solely focused on promoting solar cooking in India,” said Binit Das, Programme Manager, Renewable Energy, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Stating that the implementation of a dedicated policy would signify the government’s enduring dedication to solar cooking, Das said that it would also stimulate investment and ensure sustained sectoral advancement.

Experts suggest that policies promoting solar cooking could help India address challenges related to traditional cooking fuel such as indoor pollution, use of non-renewable sources such as LPG and energy security. “The (solar cooking) policy could effectively tackle pertinent challenges such as affordability, awareness enhancement and technology refinement through tailored interventions. Furthermore, it could streamline collaboration among various government bodies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private enterprises. By offering clear directives and earmarking resources, a dedicated policy would facilitate the promotion and expansive adoption of solar cooking,” Das said.

Currently, LPG continues to be promoted under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), a government scheme launched in 2016, to distribute LPG connections as a way to move people away from polluting cooking fuels such as wood, dung and crop residue and reduce indoor air pollution. Over the past eight years, the government has distributed 101.5 million LPG connections. However, approximately 41% of the Indian population still relies on wood, cow dung or other biomass for cooking, emitting approximately 340 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Additionally, LPG is non-renewable and depleting. As one of the few heavily traded fuels, it adds to the concerns related to energy security.

“It is a shame that the government is not promoting technology (solar cooking) that would save millions of lives, forests and environment but promoting photovoltaics because it is easily scalable,” said Gadhia.


Banner image: Deepak Gadhia from Sunrise CSP India Pvt. Ltd, a company that manufactures solar thermal concentrators in India, stands next to a solar cooker. Photo from Deepak Gadhia.

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