How Cooking with Solar Power in China Decreases Air Pollution and Empowers Women

The Henan province sits in central China, a beautiful landscape known for the birth of Chinese civilization. Yet it’s also home to an unfortunate reality: Nearly three-fourths of households in Xichuan County, situated in the southwest corner of the province, use coal-fired stoves as their primary cooking appliance. These eat up wood and coal, contribute to deforestation, and emit smoke that is harmful to people’s health and the environment.

While prevalent in this region, the challenges of coal-powered cooking are not unique to the Henan province. Globally, the Clean Cooking Alliance, a US-based non-profit, says more than three billion people rely on non-planet-friendly fuels like wood, charcoal, coal, and kerosene to cook their food every day.

In addition to coming from non-renewable sources, these fuels also produce a fair amount of smoke. Because women are often responsible for feeding their families, they spend considerable time in the kitchen, inhaling this toxic air. And though they may want to use a cleaner source, they face two main hurdles — cost and a limited access to alternatives.

Using a better cooker can be a big investment for households, already putting a strain on tight budgets. Plus, it has to be powered up constantly with some type of fuel — another added cost.

In 2012, a solution was introduced to local communities in the Henan province: a solar-powered cooker, distributed by a local agency that owns the actual equipment so the cookers are provided to households at no charge. And since the energy source is purely solar, there is no associated fuel cost.

How does the cooker work? A large dish reflects heat from the sun onto the cooking vessel — often a big pot of stew simmering away all day.

Jiang Huanying, a farmer living in Yanggang Village.

Jiang Huanying, a farmer living in Yanggang Village.

“Because of the kind of food that families cook here, particularly rice-based dishes that can gently cook all day, it’s an ideal solution. Plus, they get sunshine most of the year,” explains Christiaan Vrolijk of Natural Capital Partners.

Families are actually saving money and time by not having to buy wood, coal or any other kind of fuel. This empowers women to invest their time and money in activities other than cooking — allowing them to learn new skills and participate in the economy.

Jiang Huanying, a farmer living in Yanggang Village, is one of the 100,000 families that were given a solar cooker in 2012. She tends to her two children and mother-in-law, and her husband travels for work to a nearby town. As the head of the household, Huanying found the solar cooker to be a gamechanger. “The solar cooker is very useful, especially in the summer," she explains. "We can boil a kettle of water in less than 10 minutes. Previously, it was not easy for us to buy coalball as we live very far away from the town center. Now, with the solar cooker, it can save us a lot of time and energy.”


MetLife is very proud to support the Danjiang River Solar Cookstove project as part of our carbon neutrality commitment,

The estimated savings enjoyed by families like Huanying's every year are 300 RMB, or $50 USD. While that may appear to be a small amount to some, it is equal to more than 10 percent of the annual income of the poorest households in this region.

Not only are these stoves more cost-effective and better for the environment, they’re also 50 percent more efficient than coal stoves because they can produce more heat and energy.

By 2017, five years into the project, the cookers had collectively helped offset 1 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. Natural Capital Partners reports that because of their simple design, the stoves have been easy for families to adopt and continue to be used year after year. Given that the project will run for at least another five years, their impact is likely to double in offsetting CO2 emissions.

“MetLife is very proud to support the Danjiang River Solar Cookstove project as part of our carbon neutrality commitment,” says Timothy O’Brien, SVP Global Real Estate & Corporate Services. “As a global insurance company dedicated to helping people navigate life’s twists and turns, it is a priority that we are both reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions while creating positive impact for communities around the world.”

As a continuation of MetLife's promise to achieve carbon neutrality each year, we are dedicated to actively finding opportunities to increase the environmental and economic sustainability of the places where we live and work.

Natural Capital Partners, a company specializing in environmental solutions for business, helped MetLife identify a clean cookstove program in China to support as part of our carbon neutral commitment. The Danjiang River Solar Cooker project provides local households with free solar cookers and has benefitted more than 300,000 people, mitigating the health effects of smoke inhalation, decreasing the impact that cooking with fuels like wood and coal has on the environment and reducing the amount of time individuals, primarily women, need to spend cooking meals for their family.