The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2011 World Energy Outlook (WEO) warns that “the world is in danger of locking itself into an unsustainable future unless major changes are made by the energy sector to limit the global temperature increase to 2°C above the pre-industrial level.” At the time, one would be forgiven to think that the global energy crisis was finally getting the attention it deserved.
Today, nine years after, there are far more warnings documented which continuously urges the world to prioritise sustainable energy by working towards the achievement of three critical goals by 2030: universal access to electricity and clean cooking fuels, doubling the share of the world’s energy supplied by renewable sources from 15 to 30 per cent and doubling the rate of gain in energy efficiency.
When it comes to the adoption of clean cooking fuels, research has shown that the majority of people in developing countries use biomass fuels for all their energy requirements. Biomass fuels generally refer to fuels such as wood, charcoal, crop residues, animal dung and other related sources.
This is even more pronounced in the world’s rural areas where fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas) are not readily available or affordable.
But if biomass is touted as a source of clean cooking fuel, what is responsible for its limited adoption? It’s a matter of economics and social status. As economic opportunities improve quality of life, people begin to tilt towards using “modern” fuels (which are derived from fossil fuels). The reason is simple: fossil fuels such as LPG (cooking gas) are more efficient, easier to use and have fewer health effects.
So, what if there was a way to derive the same attributes that make fossil fuels more appealing to renewable energy sources? Then you have Ethanol, a feasible alternative and a sustainable and renewable source of energy with less pollution to the environment.
It is clear, colourless alcohol made from biomass materials such as grains and crops with high starch and sugar content such as corn, sorghum, barley, sugar cane, and sugar beets. Ethanol is also made from grasses, trees, and agricultural and forestry residues such as corn cobs and stocks, rice straw, sawdust, and wood chips.
In the United States of America, fuel ethanol is mostly derived from Corn because of its abundance and low price. The starch in corn kernels is fermented into sugar, which is then fermented into alcohol. Though expensive to produce, ethanol fuel is gaining ground as a substitute to gasoline for vehicles.
Expectedly, the automobile industry has been impacted. A growing number of vehicles in the US now run on mixtures of gas and ethanol; a common label now found on designated fuel pumps at gas stations across the country.
In Nigeria, the time is right for the use of ethanol as a cheaper, greener and much safer domestic-use fuel in place of kerosene and cooking gas. In 2017, the World Health Organization estimated that almost 4.3 million people died annually from household air pollution caused by the use of kerosene and other solid fuels.
Also, in line with the United Nations’ sustainable development goal (SDG) of affordable and clean energy for all, the WHO recommended the quick adoption of cleaner cooking fuels, one of which was Liquefied Natural Gas (LPG) i.e. cooking gas.
However, the adoption of LPG has been slow due to its prohibitive cost and reported incidents of gas leaks which have led to explosions and damages to life and property.
Laboratory tests have also shown that Ethanol burns with higher energy than kerosene and gas but with much less pollution.
However, the slow rate of its adoption for domestic use may not be unconnected with the extremely low value (4.3%) of the lower limit of inflammability, which makes the use of pure ethanol for household purposes dangerous. However, this problem has been overcome by the use of ethanol and water mixed in a 50 – 50 ratio in a suitably designed stove.
Tests done at the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in 2006 showed that 50% ethanol-water mixture validated the use of Ethanol as good cooking fuel.
Experts at the Energy Commission of Nigeria (ECN) have also published a study that revealed that an Ethanol stove had less thermal efficiency, higher start-up cost and less fuel economy but provided good returns as a long term investment.
The study also showed that the ethanol stove had less carbon soot, less emissions and encourages renewable energy usage. Visibly, ethanol burns cleanly and does not produce any smoke or smell when blown out. On the other hand, kerosene produces more carbon and greenhouse gases than ethanol and also produces an unpleasant smell when blown out.
In November 2009, the Federal Government of Nigeria announced the replacement of kerosene household cooking fuel with ethanol produced from cassava feedstock. The project tagged ‘cassakero’ involved the installation of 10,000 units of mini-ethanol refineries for the production of 1.44 billion litres of ethanol cooking fuel by smallholder processors.
Though the use of ethanol as a fuel may be slightly more expensive, with the rising crude oil prices and the search for alternatives to contemporary cooking fuels, it can still be seen as a viable alternative in the near future. Specifically, tax breaks should be granted to Nigerian companies involved in the manufacture and/or importation of renewable energy components.
The development and adoption of home-grown technology should also be encouraged through funding and international collaboration.