Burgeoning Cluster Of Lifesaving Stove Designers Call Northwest Home

Dec 19, 2011

VASHON ISLAND, Wash. - More than a century after the discovery of electricity, billions -- yes, billions -- of people still heat and cook with wood fires. In the developing world, indoor air pollution from smoke is blamed for nearly 2 million deaths per year.

We're focusing on the dangers of wood smoke as part of a public media collaboration with Investigate West and Seattle TV station KCTS. Correspondent Tom Banse reports on how the Northwest became home to a cluster of non-profits that aim to sell millions of cleaner-burning cook stoves to the world's poor.

If you've been watching the weather this past two weeks, you know we've had an unusual stretch of pretty stagnant air. In parts of the Northwest, environmental agencies limited burning in wood stoves and fire places. Klamath County air quality hotline: "The air quality is presently unhealthy for sensitive groups. Only pellet stoves..."

World traveler Peter Scott looks at the sky over Vashon Island, Washington where he lives and works. He's hardly impressed.

"You know, a bad day in the Pacific Northwest is nothing like a good day in Africa, what people are exposed to there," Scott says. "Maybe this will give people a hint: imagine if you didn't have a chimney in your house and you were supposed to live in that smoke."

Scott is president of the BURN Design Lab. That's one of at least four Northwest based non-profits whose founders are convinced cleaner, more efficient cookstoves can save millions of lives. It could also lessen deforestation, global warming and poverty.

The World Health Organization estimates it's mostly women and children who die from exposure to smoke from cooking fires and rudimentary stoves. It kills more people each year than AIDS or malaria.

In Scott's workshop, engineers and metalsmiths tinker with different cookstove designs. They're mostly compact and portable, not much bigger than a CrockPot. Some are optimized to burn charcoal; others - wood, coal or even cow dung.

"We want to make a stove that uses 50 percent less fuel and 90 percent less emissions," Soctt explains. "We want to do that without a fan or any sort of complicated system. To make a stove for $20 or $25 that can be affordable in Africa, that's a real challenge."

Yet, his team has done it. Scott says they're ready to move to mass manufacturing. He's sketched plans for a big factory in Kenya.

Eugene, Oregon is home to similarly situated StoveTeam International. Nancy Hughes founded the nonprofit in 2008. She's spinning off stove factories in Latin America.

"With a small amount of money, we can help people in the developing world start factories," Hughes says. "So in the past -- a little under four years -- we have established six factories in five countries."

All of this social entrepreneurship can be traced back to a pioneering research and testing collective in Cottage Grove, Oregon called Aprovecho. That nonprofit too has for-profit manufacturing spinoffs now, including a factory in China and a global sales outfit based in Portland called EcoZoom.

Aprovecho's director Dean Still says the clean cookstove arena is "heating up." That's what it looks like from Washington D.C. as well, where Radha Muthiah stokes the fires.

"When I think about the cluster in the Pacific Northwest, it doesn't surprise me that we have these organizations," she says. "We've always seen in the Pacific Northwest that it has been a hub of research and for innovation in many different ways -- innovation that I would classify as socially related innovation."

Muthiah directs a relatively new initiative for the United Nations Foundation called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Its motto is: "Cooking shouldn't kill."

She says Northwest-based international relief groups like World Vision and Mercy Corps are getting on board too. Mercy Corps is helping start up small stove factories in Southeast Asia, Somalia and Haiti. World Vision is promoting and distributing highly efficient cookstoves as part of relief projects in Africa.

This story is part of a collaboration focusing on wood smoke. Our partners include the nonprofit newsroom InvestigateWest, other public radio stations in the Northwest and TV station KCTS 9.