Dr. Robyn Meeks is enthusiastic as she describes her research on renewable biogas technology in Nepal. This project, part of her larger research agenda in Asia, has spanned three years and examines the environmental and socioeconomic benefits of households shifting from traditional cooking fuels–like firewood–to biogas.
Meeks, a Harvard-trained development economist and assistant professor at SNRE, became interested in biogas after Nepal’s government began promoting it as a cleaner, greener, healthier energy option. The country’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment sought to improve energy access and enhance local environmental quality by making biogas more widely available. To do this, the Ministry’s Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC) partnered with international organizations and the private sector, installing home biogas systems in economically challenged or geographically isolated regions. As an incentive, the AEPC subsidized up to 40% of the cost for participants.
The need for this type of program is great: environmental degradation from fuelwood collection has resulted in forest cover decline in recent decades.
So, what is biogas and why is it better? Biogas systems generate a clean, odorless cooking fuel by capturing methane and other gases created during the breakdown of animal and human wastes. Biogas reduces fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emissions, while helping preserve forests that otherwise might be compromised to obtain firewood. It also affords the health protections of a cleaner-burning fuel. One secondary benefit of biogas systems is that they produce a “bioslurry” that can be used as fertilizer, a feature that strongly appeals to agricultural households.
Meeks, having previously studied the positive effects of new drinking water infrastructure on household time budgets in Kyrgyzstan, wondered if Nepali families would experience similar time savings from biogas infrastructure. If so, might households reallocate that saved time toward higher value activities, like education, wage employment and agriculture? Could biogas offer a “double-dividend” – simultaneously improving both well-being and environmental conditions?
Meeks worked jointly with Katharine Sims, associate professor of economics at Amherst College, and Hope Thompson, doctoral student at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, on this pioneering study–the first of its kind to measure the sustainable development impacts of biogas across an entire country. Thompson was drawn to the study because she wanted to explore how people are coping with climate change and building resiliency in the face of resource uncertainty.
A woman cooks on her clean biogas stove in Gerkhutar, Nuwakot. Photo credit: Hope Thompson
Working in tandem with the government, the research team analyzed census data, household surveys, and Landsat satellite imagery to quantify the socioeconomic and environmental effects of biogas. The study’s findings varied regionally, but on average, Meeks found a whopping 25-40% increase in time spent on education among biogas households.
The study also found that household biogas installations were particularly beneficial to Nepali women, who are traditionally busy from before dawn until late into the night, gathering fuel and water to stoke the cooking and heating fires, caring for children, milling food, and tending to the family’s animals. Men are not typically been involved in these chores. Due to the time saved by using biogas, women in certain regions spent less time on home production, while men spent slightly more. Evidence indicated that men were now more likely to participate in the kitchen due to the increased ease of the cooking process and diminished need to collect or purchase firewood. This small shift in gender roles has been an interesting and unexpected finding that Meeks and her team may explore in the future.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that women in biogas households have also been able to attend skill-building classes–and in some cases, teach them. One newly married couple installed biogas because the husband didn’t want his wife to spend all of her time tending a cooking fire. With the hours freed up by the biogas stove, the wife began offering literacy classes for women in her neighborhood, which enabled her to make a meaningful contribution to her community and earn an income on the side.
Hope Thompson (left) talks with members of a women's literacy class in Gerkhutar, Nuwakot.
The class instructor can now find time to teach - and make extra money doing so - because
she and her husband installed a home biogas system. Photo credit: Hope Thompson
In terms of environmental impacts, biogas was associated with a decrease in time spent collecting fuelwood (a savings of up to 70 hours annually), but the impacts on forest cover were harder to quantify. “If we know which villages have taken up this technology, we can measure acres of avoided deforestation…in instances of higher uptake, we would expect to see more avoided deforestation,” Meeks said. After making the shift to biogas, a household might collect less firewood in the following year. Thus, if more households transitioned to biogas, a potentially greater aggregate decrease in deforestation could be observed over time.
However, there were important regional distinctions to note. Wood might be used to heat the home, not just for cooking purposes. In areas where robust local markets for fuelwood exist, people may still gather it to sell–even if they do not use it themselves. When households were not as reliant on wood, the money saved enabled some of them to shift toward agricultural production. In fact, households in wood-purchasing regions actually doubled the amount of time they spent on agriculture after adopting biogas.
Biogas has much promise, but requires a fairly costly initial investment, at a price double or triple the average family monthly income. Consequently, the technology favors land and livestock owners, and is still not readily accessible to the poorest members of the community. Thompson cites these startup costs, a general mistrust of biogas companies, and the learning curve as barriers in getting communities on board.
As with any new technology, early adopters offer a model for the rest of the neighborhood; the best advertisement for biogas is having someone nearby who has had success. But some people remain resistant to change, or have long-held traditions in the kitchen. “This directly impacts people’s lives,” says Thompson. “People have learned to cook a certain way, with family recipes that have been passed down. Cooking and these cultural traditions are wrapped up in so much meaning.” When it’s a new and different process even just to boil water, the conversion to biogas can seem daunting.
On the bright side, for those with the financial means and space to purchase one, a household biogas system pays for itself in two to three years, and lasts up to twenty. As an additional benefit, the AEPC warranties and maintains the technology for the first three years. The feedback Thompson received indicated that households found numerous benefits in swapping fuelwood for biogas, and many deemed it a useful addition to their home energy portfolio.
For Meeks, a rewarding part of this project has been the ability to dialogue and build relationships with renewable energy professionals in Nepal. “They care about who they are reaching with this program–often, the poorer part of the population–and they want the program to improve people’s quality of life,” Meeks said.
Thompson concurred, “It’s about improving livelihoods and communities…and for me, it’s really about trying to help households find sustainable ways to pull themselves out of poverty. Renewable energy technologies have the potential to be one great way to do that.”
The AEPC, whose primary aim is to enhance people’s quality of life and reduce strain on the country’s natural resources, has been receptive to Meeks’ results. Today, approximately 30% of Nepal’s households that are well-suited for biogas have installed a system, and the future looks bright.
To learn more about Professor Robyn Meeks and her work, visit her faculty page.