International Conference on Biomass-based Fuels and Cooking Systems
(BFCS-2000): A Report
Dr. Priya Karve

 A lot of research and development work is going on all over the world
on the use of biomass energy in the rural domestic energy sector in the
developing countries. A leading Indian NGO in the field of rural
development, Appropriate Rural Technology Institute (ARTI), had
organised the International Conference on Biomass-based Fuels and
Cooking Systems (BFCS-2000), at Pune, during November 20-24, 2000. The
conference brought together international biomass energy experts, on a
single platform, for the first time, in the last decade.
 In all, 80 delegates participated in BFCS-2000. Of these, 55 delegates
were from different parts of India, and 25 delegates from outside the
country. Of the non-Indian delegates, 12 delegates were from other Asian
countries, 1 was from the African continent, 5 were from the European
countries and 7 from the American continent. The delegates included
scientists and technologists, social scientists, economists, development
experts, representatives of Indian as well as international monetary and
policy making bodies, representatives of government organisations as
well as NGOs, renewable energy entrepreneurs, etc. It is noteworthy that
none of the delegates was a guest-invitee. All the delegates bore their
own expenses for participating in the conference. Every delegate had
personal hands-on experience in his/her field. As a result, each paper
dealt with concrete data and recommendations rather than platitudinous
and vague concepts.
 The conference was inaugurated by Prof. Dr. G.S. Tasgaonkar, Chairman
of the Pune Chapter of the Institution of Engineers. There was a special
Poster Session for the delegates to display information about their
work. The Poster Session was inaugurated by Dr. Ronal Larson, biomass
energy expert and Moderator of the International Internet discussion
group on Stoves. As a parallel event of the conference, an
open-to-public Exhibition on Renewable Energy was also organised during
November 20-22, 2000. The Exhibition was inaugurated by Dr. M.A. Ghare,
Vice-President of AFARM, which is a conglomeration of a large number of
grassroots level NGOs in Maharashtra. About 10 manufacturers of
renewable energy devices (including two non-Indian companies) displayed
their products in the exhibition. It was visited by about 1000 people
during the three days.
On the first three days of the conference, the delegates presented about
50 papers dealing with various aspects of the topic of the conference.
Almost every paper was followed by in depth discussions. On the last two
days, the delegates visited ARTI’s field station and Rural
Entrepreneurship Development Centre (REDC), near Phaltan, Dist. Satara,
and, a village adopted by ARTI Technical Back up support Unit under
National Programme on Improved Chulha (NPIC) for demonstration of models
of improved stoves.
 Nearly 75-80% of the population in the developing world relies on wood
and waste biomass as fuel for cooking and room heating. In most cases,
the agricultural and forestry waste biomass is used as fuel, but in
certain regions of the world, the demands of the domestic energy sector
have put a severe pressure on the precious forest resources. This in
itself is a cause for environmental concern. However, a more critical
issue is that of the pollution of the indoor air due to the soot and
smoke produced by inefficient combustion of biomass fuels inside the
Several studies conducted over the last couple of decades have revealed
that poor indoor air quality is one of the major factors contributing to
the poor state of health of rural women and children in the developing
countries. 1.5% of the total deaths among Indian women can be attributed
to chronic diseases of the respiratory system. Among these, the
percentage of women using wood or biomass for cooking for 10-15 years is
very large. The percentage of blindness and tuberculosis is the highest
among women using traditional chulhas, as compared to any other
population group. Through several recent studies, a direct correlation
is emerging between deaths and diseases in infants and young children,
and use of wood and biomass as fuel in the house. An important factor to
be noted in this context is this: The number of untimely deaths is just
one side of the coin. A general and chronic state of poor health or a
disability like blindness adversely affects the way of life and that too
must be borne in mind while assessing the health impact of poor indoor
air quality.
The seriousness of the problem is underlined when we note that the
dependence of the global rural population on biomass energy is not
expected to reduce significantly for at least a century or so. In fact,
if studies of energy usage trends are anything to go by, the number of
people relying on biomass energy is expected to increase over the next
few decades. Also, the fossil fuel resources are dwindling down, and the
so-called non-conventional energy sources like solar energy are failing
to deliver the promised goods. Thus, there is a strong chance that even
the developed world will revert to biomass energy in the near future. In
this context, the importance of BFCS-2000 cannot be over-emphasised.
The conference had two special sessions to discuss the issue of indoor
air quality in the context of the use of biomass fuels for cooking and
room heating. During these sessions, a number of papers based on field
level as well as laboratory level studies were presented. These papers
discussed the methodologies of such studies, and also provided concrete
data that highlighted the severity of the problem.
 The simplest short term solution to the problem is to promote the
so-called improved stoves. over the last few decades, several approaches
have been attempted through co-ordinated multidisciplinary programmes
involving biomass energy scientists and technologists on one hand, and
developmental experts, policy makers and field level implementers on the
other. The common theme of these programmes has been to design and
develop improved stoves and disseminate them in the rural areas. The
National Programme on Improved Chulha (NPIC), sponsored by the Ministry
of Non-conventional Energy Sources (MNES) in India is one such
programme. It beats all other programmes in the geographic area covered,
the number of potential beneficiaries, as well as the widely diverse
cooking and eating habits and other cooking-related myths and taboos
that have to be tackled. Several papers presented in the conference
dealt with the possible designs for improved stoves that would save
fuel, reduce air pollution, be easy to manufacture/install and operate,
and yet would be affordable to the rural users.
Conversion of wood and biomass into standard, superior fuels (char,
alcohol, woodgas, biogas, etc.), and designing and promoting cooking
devices for clean and efficient utilisation of such fuels is a more
lasting solution to the problem. The technologies for conversion of
biomass into superior fuels have already been developed, but primarily
from the point of view of production of industrial fuels. It is possible
to modify the conversion technologies to enable local production of
biomass-based fuels in rural areas. Research and development work in
this context has already begun. As a parallel activity, designs of
cooking devices operating on such biomass-based fuels and having all the
desirable features from the viewpoint of the rural user, are also being
developed. These topics were the main theme of the conference and a
large number of papers concentrated on these frontier areas of research
in the field of biomass energy.
The new biomass-based fuel and cooking system combinations that are
currently being developed and field-tested, need to be promoted and
popularised in the rural areas. The biggest hurdle of course will be to
convince people that the apparently ‘free-of-cost’ unprocessed wood or
biomass are actually extracting a heavy price from the users, and
compared to that the superior biomass-based fuels are cheaper. The
successful commercialisation strategies demonstrated in the case of
improved stoves can be used as a guideline in this context.
Consequently, a special session in the conference was devoted to a
critical appraisal of the improved stoves promotion strategies employed
in different parts of the world. The session was followed by a panel
discussion on potential strategies to be implemented for the new fuel
and cooking system combinations.
A widespread promotion of biomass-based fuels also requires a closer
look at biomass availability in rural areas and a supporting movement of
R&D on and promotion of agroforestry and other systems of biomass
production. A few papers dealt with assessing the availability of
biomass in rural areas and production of biomass exclusively for the
purpose of production of useful energy.
All in all, BFCS-2000 confirmed that conversion of biomass to superior
fuels and utilisation of these fuels in appropriately designed cooking
systems, is a realisable and sustainable route to tackling the issue of
indoor air pollution. It was also noted that production and sale of the
new fuels and stoves can be a novel source of income and employment in
the rural areas. The increased local need for biomass will provide the
farming community with an additional source of income. Local production
of energy will be a significant step towards village level self-reliance
- an important ingredient of sustainable rural development. The biggest
benefit of course will be an improved state of health of women and
It was also appreciated that implementation of this solution requires a
mammoth effort at a variety of levels. It requires involvement of
agricultural scientists, biomass energy scientists and technologists,
indoor air quality experts, rural development experts, financiers,
governmental policy making and implementing agencies, technology
disseminators, political leaders, etc. A co-ordinated effort of all
these people and agencies, spread over a decade or so, can bring about a
change. The task is difficult but not impossible.