This course will be offered again in September 2020. Preiliminary details are available here

Today, 40 percent of the world’s population relies on biomass burned in open fires to meet the majority of their household energy needs. Smoke from open fires contributes to climate change, and it is the leading cause of death for children under 5 and the second-leading cause of death for women globally. Yet, because of complex issues — involving resources, infrastructure, culture, and awareness — the implementation and adoption of cleaner-burning fuels and technologies at scale pose significant challenges. A Nationl Geographic story about this and our partners working to address the problems in Guatemala can be found here:

 The HEST Household Energy team in Guatemala 

This ongoing interdisciplinary research project and field course are focused on understanding the connections between energy needs in households and the preferences and motivations for users to adopt various technologies and practices. Based on the extensive field research experience of Dr. Nordica MacCarty regarding the design and evaluation of biomass cookstoves, this project seeks to introduce students — through research and firsthand experience in rural Guatemala — to issues surrounding household energy in developing countries and to potential technologies to meet energy needs.

In order to connect with communities in-country, Oregon State partnered with StoveTeam International, an Oregon-based nonprofit that supports the development of biomass cookstove factories across Latin America. Supported by grants from Winrock International and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, StoveTeam is working to evaluate the adoption of cookstoves in Guatemala and invited OSU to participate in the study.

Monitoring a family’s traditional cooking fire

A family’s traditional fire and their new Ecocina cookstove

“Household Energy in Guatemala: Energy, Technology and Society” (HEST 299/599) was offered in Spring and Summer of 2016 and was open to all OSU undergraduate and graduate students. Led by Dr. Nordica A MacCarty (Mechanical Engineering) and Dr. Elizabeth Schroeder (Development Economics), the course aimed to provide the necessary background and tools to prepare for a 12-day trip to Guatemala.

During the on-campus component of the course, students from across all fields of engineering, economics, and public policy made use of lectures from faculty and guests, readings, and trainings by local organizations in order to formulate a research question to study while in Guatemala. The students' questions concerned topics such as evaluating fuel use and emissions performance of cookstoves, comparing the energy costs of various options (including costs of electrification), user adaptation and social networking effects of clean cookstoves, and supply-chain analysis and lean assessment of production at the cookstove factory. To prepare for the trip, students and faculty traveled to Aprovecho Research Center to learn about biomass cookstove design and emissions testing.

Building Cookstoves at the EcoComal Factory

The team spent three days at the EcoComal Factory, which was created with the support of StoveTeam to make the Ecocina single-pot cookstoves. During this time, many of the students helped with the manufacturing of the cookstoves, including mixing and pouring concrete, cleaning molds, and assembling the pieces of cookstoves. Due to a local radio telenovela marketing campaign by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, the factory had just received a large order and, thanks to help from the students, was able to get it out on time. Several students also worked to quantify and map out the inventory and production processes at the factory to help optimize its operation. At the end of the visit, the students all chipped in to purchase a power drill, gloves, and other tools as a gift to the factory.

OSU Students helping to place concrete into the cookstove combustion chambers.An OSU student helps a factory worker to pour concrete into plancha molds.OSU students taking a break from pouring concrete into plancha molds.

Evaluation of EcoPlancha Cookstove Design

In advance of the trip, Marco Tulio, owner of the EcoComal factory, requested that the team provide testing and evaluation for his new model of cookstove, the EcoPlancha III. This stove is a large concrete cookstove with a "Rocket elbow" combustion chamber, chimney, and griddle (or plancha) with removable pot rings. Two international standard testing protocols were used: the Water Boiling Test (WBT), designed to evaluate all cookstoves on a standardized basis, and the Controlled Cooking Test (CCT), to account for in-field performance.

A local cook participates in the Controlled Cooking test on the EcoPlancha cookstove while wearing an indoor air pollution monitor.

Local cooks preparing tortillas on the EcoPlancha during the Controlled Cooking Test

The CCT was performed with the help of six local cooks, who prepared 30 batches of beans, rice, and tortillas on the EcoPlancha and on a traditional open fire. The team used emissions testing equipment, previously developed by Dr. MacCarty, on loan from Aprovecho Research Center to evaluate emissions released into the room and resulting exposure by the cooks. Results showed that the EcoPlancha saved about 30 percent of time and fuel and reduced emissions by more than 75 percent, as compared to the three-stone fire. Interviews with the cooks revealed that they appreciated the time savings and that their eyes did not sting as much when they used the new stove. The team recommended a number of design changes to improve performance of the stove, including improving the cross-sectional area through the passages within the stove.

User Surveys and Cookstove Installation in Rural Communities

As part of ongoing research by StoveTeam International, the team helped conduct user surveys and usage monitoring in two rural communities outside of Antigua: San Ramon and Las Brisas, in the municipality of Guanagazapa. These communities were about a 30-minute uphill drive followed by a 30-minute hike away from the nearest small city. Each community had about 40 households, and one community had recently been visited by faith-based groups who installed a church, school, and minimal electricity for lighting in each home. 

Downloading data from a SUMS temperature sensorMonitoring the temperature of a cookstove.

In this study, the households each received cookstoves (EcoPlancha in one community, Ecocinas in the other) and participated in surveys and monitoring of cookstove use through the installation of small temperature-logging sensors on both their traditional and new stoves. Teams of students with translators to the native language Mam participated in implementing the surveys, with each team visiting about four households each day. Other teams worked to install the cookstoves equipped with temperature sensors.

Local cultural experiences

In addition to research, the group also had opportunities to participate in local cultural activities. These included a walking tour of Antigua, a beautiful colonial city that was the original capital of Guatemala before it was ravaged by earthquakes in 1772. Because it is surrounded by active volcanoes, earthquakes are common, and the group experienced a mild one during breakfast the first day of the trip. The students enjoyed playing soccer with workers at the factory and stumbled upon a local professional game to attend on our free day. Guatemala is home to some of the world’s best chocolate and coffee, and one morning was spent roasting, shelling, grinding, forming, and then drinking chocolate.

One evening, the former consulate general to the U.S. embassy in Guatemala — who later started a successful nonprofit providing women’s health and fertility services — was giving a speech about the current political system in Guatemala. A friend of one of the students, she invited us to join her and then to speak with her afterwards at dinner about the challenges and opportunities facing rural Guatemalans. From her colleague at the NGO, we also learned that the Pride festival would be in Guatemala City at the end of the trip, and the students who had planned to stay a day later were happy to attend. On the last night of our stay, we enjoyed a fiesta with food and dancing with our hosts at the factory and the cooks who helped with testing.

We would like to thank all of the faculty, staff, students, and parents who helped to make this productive and enjoyable trip a reality. In particular, we would like to thank the Zerba and Evans families for their support of the Humanitarian Engineering program at OSU. We look forward to offering a similar project again in the future.


Story: Nordica MacCarty

Photos: Nolan Kelley, Judy Jiang, Nordica MacCarty