Multi-Scalar Analysis of Household Fuel Transitions: Developing an Evidence-based Framework

Charcoal, Brian Evans, 2015, Unmodified.

Charcoal, Brian Evans, 2015, Unmodified

Household air pollution causes nearly four million premature deaths per year, primarily among poor women and children in low- and middle-income countries (Rosenthal et al., 2017Lim et al. 2012). Transitions away from solid fuels improve indoor air quality, directly benefiting the health of women and children in the first two years of life. It remains unclear how to catalyze widespread and sustained fuel transitions, despite countless fuel transition case studies at the local level. This proposal will use mixed methods to identify enabling environments for household fuel transitions by examining both successful and unsuccessful transition attempts.

Understanding of sustainable fuel transitions is fragmented, showing when individual transitions happen and to what extent, but not charting a path for others to follow. Funded by the Community for Global Health Equity, this seed project seeks to address the challenge set forth by Rosenthal et al. (2017). Our innovative transdisciplinary macro-, meso-, and micro-level analyses will yield a more complete understanding of nested enabling environments for fuel transition and enable stakeholders at every level to identify what framework needs to be in place for sustainable fuel transition.

Specific Research Objectives

  • Identify countries, regions, and households with successful (i.e., decreased solid fuel use) and unsuccessful (i.e., increased solid fuel use) transitions using USAID’s Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) data.
  • Use data-mining of DHS quantitative data to identify fuel transition trends and their determinants at the country, region and household levels.
  • Obtain tiered (i.e., different populations; multiple stakeholders) qualitative data using on-site interviews in regions with various, and perhaps conflicting, patterns of fuel transitions.
  • Develop a framework and timeline for household fuel transition, based on quantitative and qualitative results.

Off-Site Research Methods

  1. Large-n global-level quantitative analysis: Analyze DHS data to identify where fuel transitions occur and what variables correlate with successful/unsuccessful transitions.
  2. Large-n subnational level quantitative analysis: Evaluate variability in regional DHS data within a single country to identify communities for on-site interviews.
  3. Large-n local-level quantitative analysis: Identify local trends in switching away from solid fuel use based on disaggregated DHS data.

On-Site Research Methods

Investigate fuel transition from stakeholders across an entire supply chain, including but not limited to consumers or end users, community organizations, political leaders, non-governmental organizations, and fuel manufacturers/providers to examine enabling environments alongside consumer absorptive capabilities and stakeholder perception of fuel transitions.

How is this Innovative?

The holistic approach to understanding fuel transitions using both quantitative and qualitative methodologies creates a comparison of rhetoric, perceived impact, and reality. Policy imposition has its limits and must be coupled with enabling mechanisms at all societal levels if policy mobility is expected to succeed from one region to another. If household fuel transitions are to expand, this analysis is required.

The Long View

This team hopes to highlight complexities in transitioning to less harmful household fuels: for example, why one region of a country has transitioned away from solid fuels, while a neighboring region continues to use them. To this end, the project will develop a model of socio-economic characteristics that affect transition from biomass to cleaner fuels and provide space for stakeholder explanations of local barriers and facilitators of adoption. This big idea requires a diverse team with quantitative expertise applied to policy-making, as well as experience in community engagement, household-level research, and energy poverty analysis. 


Country-level analysis of household fuel transitions
Elena V. McLean, Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen, John D. Atkinson, Julia Ravenscroft, Sharon Hewner, Alexandra Schindel
Published in World Development, February 2019

Abstract: Solid fuel combustion remains a dominant energy source for household heating and cooking in less developed countries. As a result, almost three billion people are exposed to household air pollution, causing four million premature deaths annually, primarily among poor women and children. We analyze data from Demographic and Health Surveys in 69 countries to identify determinants of transition from solid to cleaner fuel. Estimates from a population-averaged linear model show that population density and size, rural population share, income inequality, and charcoal production are positively associated with countries’ solid fuel use, while GDP per capita, electricity and natural gas production have the opposite effect. Economic development, measured as GDP per capita, has the strongest link to solid fuel use: a standard deviation increase in per capita GDP above its mean reduces solid fuel use from 70% to 57% of households. Electricity production is another strong predictor: solid fuel use drops by 11% when electricity production increases by one standard deviation above the mean. In addition, in a fixed-effects linear model, population size has a positive association with solid fuel use, while increases in GDP per capita and the number of governments’ renewable energy incentives are associated with lower dependence on solid fuels.

Household Dependence on Solid Cooking Fuels in Peru: An Analysis of Environmental and Socioeconomic Conditions. 

McLean, E. V., Atkinson, J. D., Bagchi-Sen, S., & Schindel, A.

Global Environmental Change, Volume 58. September 2019.

Abstract: Solid fuel use is linked with adverse effects on the environment and human health. Yet, solid fuels remain an important energy source for households in developing countries. Even when country-level dependence on solid fuels is modest, there is often significant variation in within-country patterns of solid fuel use. This study examines a range of environmental and socioeconomic conditions to understand the relationship between them and household energy use within a country. While our results are derived from a study of regional patterns of solid fuel dependence in Peru, the contribution of this study is broad: variables that we include in our models of households’ fuel choice decisions are likely to shape such decisions in most developing countries. Our findings indicate that environmental conditions, such as elevation and forest cover, are associated with solid fuel use. Socioeconomic factors, including urbanization, poverty and female literacy, are similarly important. In addition, we identify nuanced links between types of female employment and indigenous population, on the one hand, and solid fuel use, on the other.

Articles and Reflections

Our Team

Elena McLean

Project Lead, Multiscalar Analysis of Fuel Transitions; Associate Professor

Political Science

507 Park Hall

Phone: 716-645-8444


John Atkinson

Associate Professor

Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

233 Jarvis Hall

Phone: 716-645-4001


Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen


Department of Geography

114 Wilkeson Quad

Phone: 716-645-2722


Sharon Hewner

Assistant Professor


214 Wende Hall

Phone: 716-829-2092


Alexandra Schindel

Assistant Professor

Learning and Instruction

564 Baldy Hall

Phone: 716-645-3174