Nathaniel Mulcahy’s speaks with the urgency and precision of someone on a mission and with little time.
Although he has patiently and politely dedicated the better part of an hour to our conversation, I know that the moment he hangs up he will be off to complete a million tasks on his to-do list.
Mulcahy has good reasons to be in a hurry. The first one is that he cheated death seven years ago following a really bad accident, so he’s a man on his second chance.
The second reason, which is linked to the first, is that he is determined to bring energy-efficient cookstoves to the world’s 2.4 billion people who sit at the bottom of the world’s energy ladder. They are the poorest of the poor who lack access to modern fuels and must make do with wood, charcoal, and animal dung to meet their everyday energy needs.
About 2 million energy poor — mostly women and children — die each year from the effects of long term exposure to smoky indoor air. Dependence on biomass for fuel helps perpetuate the poverty cycle and can add significant stress to the environment. “Black carbon,” a byproduct of inefficient biomass combustion, may contribute as much to climate change each year as deforestation and land conversion.
Taking from the Energy Rich to pay for the Energy Poor
Mulcahy is the founder of WorldStove, a small Italy and U.S.-based company that manufactures a range of energy efficient, biomass-burning cookstoves. The company operates two business lines. One sells pricey cookstoves and barbeque grills for the outdoor/camping crowd in industrialized societies. The other line of stoves, the research of which is funded by the former, helps bring energy efficient cookstoves and locally owned businesses that produce them, to the oceans of energy poor people around the world who don’t have access to modern fuels like LPG and electricity.
Mulcahy has recently returned from Haiti where he spent two months setting the foundations for a sustained long-term plan to alleviate the country’s heavy dependence on the inefficient combustion of the wood and charcoal. President Bill Clinton, the UN Special Envoy to Haiti, highlighted WorldStove’s remarkable and quick work in Haiti in a recent Earth Day address. (Read the Huffington Post’s comprehensive interview with Mulcahy about his work in Haiti.)
Mulcahy was gracious enough to sandwich us in between meetings and a series of long overdue trips to sub-Saharan Africa.
The Charcoal Project: What is WorldStove’s competitive advantage and why hasn’t the stove caught the world by storm?
Nathaniel Mulcahy: We have five main competitive advantages. The first is that for each country we go to, we adapt our stoves to local cooking traditions and available biomasses. Secondly, our stoves are specifically designed for mass production which allows for a higher quality, lower priced product. There is a great need for this. If all of the stove makers right now were to produce at full capacity, we would still not meet the needs of the 2.5 billion people who need them. Third, we don’t actually sell individual stoves, we help set up locally owned and operated, self-sustaining businesses. Fourth, careful application of fluid dynamics has allowed for lower emissions and higher combustion efficiencies. Because they produce biochar, the stoves are also CO2 negative. Fifth, our stoves can be made from recycled materials and at the end of their lives are fully recyclable.
We are a new company, things are taking off. Ask me the same question in a year.
So what’s the plan, Nathaniel?
Over the past 149 years inventors have submitted on average about 30 new cookstove patents each year. That means the cookstove community has been at it for about a century and half, with over 4,500 patents and we still can’t get better cookstoves into the hands of the billions who need them. Part of the problem is marketing and communications. And part of the problem is funding.
Too often, new technologies force people to abandon their traditions. This makes it less likely that the technology will be adopted. By adapting the stoves to the people rather than the other way around we respect traditions and increase the likelihood of success of the programs from place to place. When it comes to stoves, it can’t be one size fits all.
This is one area where we have an advantage because our cookstoves are carefully adapted to take into account the local customs and needs in each country.
For example, in Ethiopia the stove has a mitad (a flat metal surface) used to cook injera, their typical bread. In Burkina Faso they like the three-rocks-and-a-pot approach, which means they like to cook close to the ground. So we actually modified the stove so it could be partially buried in the ground. In western China nan bread is a staple, so we adapted an oven to the stove there. Our stove for Mongolia,runs 24 hours and it is used to cook and heat, so that’s an improvement that takes into account the people’s needs.
We had to do the same thing in Haiti recently. There, because many people are living in refugee camps, with many children doing the cooking, and in very close proximity to each other, we had to devise a protective heat shield. Haiti is very windy, too, so the shield actually served two functions. We also paid close attention to the local cooking habits and we noticed they use up to seven or eight pots and pans to cook a meal. This makes it a challenge but we came up with a solution that accommodates this need. Smoke is also a problem when you live in close quarters but as a negative pressure pyrolytic gasifier, the stove produces very little smoke.
TCP: So the Lucia Stove is adaptable. What can you tell us about its production?
NM: The way we make and pack the stoves makes it easy to scale up production quickly. Our components are made in the US and Italy and are flat-packed, which makes them easy to transport. That means we can fit 1000 stoves in a one cubic meter box and ship that for the same price it would cost to send 30 assembled stoves.
Our business model is that we first do a pilot program, The pilot determines the business feasibility of setting up a stove hub. It also gives us an opportunity to study the local available waste biomass and understand what cultural adaptations are needed for the stove.. As a new company, this still varies a bit from project to project. For example, most recently in Haiti we went in as a hybrid of a humanitarian aid and pilot program. .. We have made this our business model because this approach also leads to the creation of local jobs and more thorough use of the biochar.
It also helps us keep unit costs down by shipping the stove flat packed. Think about it. If a stove costs $8 each but it costs $60 to ship, you effectively are trying to sell poor people a $68 stove.
TCP: I wanted ask you about that. How do you price your stove?
NM: They are priced from project to project. In some cases the costs are supplemented, others have micro-financed options, and in all cases the final price is determined by the local market and the cost of manufacturing the regionally specific adaptations of the stoves. For example, a stove that produces just an open flame will cost less than a stove with an incorporated bread oven or that can be used as a heater.
TCP: How does the micro-financework?
NM: Let’s take Burkina-Faso as an example. For the sake of argument, suppose it costs a family $2 buy their daily ration of wood or charcoal fuel. What we do is that we sell them the stove for $1 dollar and then they can pay the balance over time. This means that starting on day one the family has an extra $1 they did not have before. So it’s already saving them money.
TCP: So the stove’s pyrolysis combustion reduced indoor air pollution, it alleviates poverty, what does it do for the local environment and for climate change?
NM: It does a lot, actually. The stove is designed to burn just about any biomass, except wood and charcoal. This was an intentional decision. We prefer the stove to use pelletized biomass for consistent performance and ease of use. This also provides additional jobs for the people processing the waste biomass into pellets. By adding value to waste biomass, it discourages people from leaving large piles of waste biomass to rot or be burnt. For example, in Egypt the equivalent of one fourth the annual cooking fuel needs for all of Egypt is burned annually, at the end of the rice harvest. In some cases, where a specific biomass is available all year, we can tune the stove to use that specific biomass.
By designing a stove than can run on just about anything — peanut shells, rice husks, corn stalks, corn cobs (without the kernels), small branches, sugar cane bagasse, wheat chaff, animal waste, bamboo, palletized grasses, sawdust, wood shaving, lumber yard scrap, even used vegetable oil – we are using biomass that does not require the destruction of timber resources. This means less stress on the local environment.
With regard to climate change, the most important thing to know is that this stove is carbon negative. This means the stove emits less C02 than if the biomass had been burnt using three-rocks-and-a-pot. What’s more, the CO2 produced by the stove is actually sequestered in the form of biochar. Biochar has come to be seen as a very valuable substance that can be used for many purposes, especially to enrich the soils in exhausted agricultural lands. That’s one reason why the stove is very attractive to country like Haiti, where the soil is so depleted of nutrients.
In a place like Haiti, we are using what they call the Clinton briquettes for fuel, but the stove is also designed to burn palletized biomass, which we are working to produce locally.
TCP: This stove sounds like it has all the right features and more. Going back to our first question, what ingredients are you missing see the accelerated adoption of the Lucia cookstove worldwide? What’s on your wishlist?
I think a single large donation would help kick start many of the programs that at this point have been only pilots. If all of our pilots were able to make it to the stove hub phase, people who are trained at the individual hubs would then be able to start stove hubs of their own. From that point on a domino effect would make the program succeed worldwide.
To find out more about WorldStove and the LuciaStove, or get involved please visit: worldstove.org
About the Lucia Stove
The crown jewel in the WorldStove collection is the LuciaStove. It is a remarkable piece of engineering. It’s beautiful, clean lines are a testament to its impeccable engineering pedigree — Mulcahy was R&D Director at Emerson Appliance for several years.
Lift the hood of the Lucia and that’s where you’ll really be dazzled. The Lucia’s components are sturdy and fit together with the precision of a Swiss Army knife. That’s because the top and bottom are injection molded, which means they are produced using high precision equipment, the kind used to manufacture robotic parts and jet engines.
Where the Lucia really excels is in performance. Unlike conventional wood or charcoal-burning stoves (like my Weber grill sitting in my backyard at home in Brooklyn), the Lucia uses a combination of engineered fluid dynamics to enter into pyrolytic mode which creates better combustion and generates sustained high heat with very little smoke or ash residue. (Yes, it’s over my head, too!)
What’s important to remember is that the basic LuciaStove is remarkable for the following characteristics:
1. Adaptable to user habits, needs, wishes, cooking habits, and available fuel
2. Low cost to make and ship (ships flat)
3. Life tested to last ten years
4. EU emissions certified (66 ppmCO)
5. Consumable parts are replaceable
6. Can function either as a coaxial gasifier or a pyrolytic stove (Don’t worry about this part. It’s not on the test.)
7. Adaptable to almost any type of fan or can even be used without
8. Creates local workforce opportunities and earnings
9. And at the end of its life is recyclable
10. And most importantly it is scalable.
For those concerned with CO2 emissions, one more reason to love the Lucia is because it’s carbon negative. This means that the stove sequesters more CO2 than is produced when operating in pyrolytic mode.