Episode #53 - Ridding the world of dirty kerosene, one slum at a time

Show notes

Globally, there are more than 1.3 billion people that do not have access to electricity – 300 million of those people are in India, a country so often talked about as being in the midst of rapid economic development. Yet, 25% of people there still cannot get on to the electricity grid.

As a result, kerosene fuel still dominates, particularly across slum communities. A breakthrough discovery when it was invented by Canadian physician and geologist, Abraham Pineo Gesner, Kerosene was cheaper and cleaner burning than its existing counterparts and far easier to source. That was in 1846, almost 170 years ago.

Today kerosene has been rightly displaced by modern energy services, which provide far superior heating and lighting. However, hundreds of millions of people across India still rely on kerosene as their primary source of light.

Burning kerosene for light, particularly in the poorly ventilated confines of a tent home, contributes to indoor air pollution. This pollution causes respiratory illness, which is the second largest cause of premature death in women and young children in Indian slums.

When kerosene is burnt, it releases particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and various nitrogen oxides – seriously bad news for our health and wellbeing.

It is not just the fuel source, but also the quality of light which is important to a person’s well-being. Quality of light greatly effects the type of activities that can be performed with the available light.

A typical kerosene lamp delivers between 1 and 6 lux of light (lux is measured as 1 lumen per meter square). In contrast, typical western standards suggest a minimum of 300 lux for tasks such as reading.

To make matters worse, the flickering quality of a kerosene lamp affects the ability to read by such light, and over time, blacking of the outside of the lamp’s plastic container further reduces the effective light output.

With hundreds of millions of people across the globe relying on kerosene as a fuel source, many millions of tonnes of carbon are emitted into the atmosphere every year. As with any combustable fuel, the efficiency with which they are burnt largely dictates their emissions intensity. The typical kerosene lamp found in a community is inefficient, which means that for every litre of kerosene burnt, around 2.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide is produced.

Kerosene is also somewhat unique in that a relatively large percentage of emissions, around 7 to 9%, is in the form of black carbon. Green house gases (GHGs) are often described in terms of their forcing effect, which relates to their ability to trap heat when suspended in our atmosphere. The higher the forcing, the more potent the GHG. Black carbon has a significantly higher forcing than regular carbon, and it is estimated that 1kg of black carbon in the atmosphere for a month contributes as much warming as 700kg of CO2 in the atmosphere for 100 years.

So, what can be done to turn the tide on the use of kerosene and dirty cookstoves in slums across the world. Our guest this week believes she has at least part of the answer.

Pollinate Energy’s mission is simple – to improve the lives of India’s urban poor by giving them access to life-changing affordable products. With a focus on sustainable solutions, such as solar lights, water filters and improved cookstoves, people are able to reduce indoor smoke, have better quality light, use less fuel and save money.

Of course, it is no walk in the park, as co-founder and CEO of the organisation Alexie Seller tells me.