Some of MIT’s most important energy-related research involves the most mundane of objects: the cookstove. In January 2008, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) launched the Energy Research Seed Fund Program. Among those first grant recipients were Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics; Michael Greenstone, the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics; and Amy Smith, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering and founder of MIT’s D-Lab. This research supergroup proposed studying the health consequences of energy consumption in India.

Half the world’s population burns biomass for cooking and heating, and many people in developing countries use these fuels in traditional cook-stoves inside their homes. Because there’s usually little ventilation, these homes have dangerously high levels of indoor air pollution. This issue affects the health of billions of people.

To tackle the problem, governments and nongovernmental organizations have been installing clay stoves with chimneys in rural homes. The MITEI-funded project was an opportunity to do a randomized control trial evaluation of this popular stove. “Improved stoves are regarded as the solution to this problem, but there was no systematic evidence on whether, used in the normal conditions of the households, they can really make a difference,” said Duflo. “Our study was the first one to attempt to do that.”

Some households in the state of Orissa were offered the stove and others were not. The researchers tracked the study participants for four years and will publish their results this year. “We uncovered the potential for the stoves, but also the very big difficulties that exist in implementing them in practice,” said Duflo. “It is essential to spend more time figuring out practical solutions to this problem that will be adopted in a sustained way by the households.”

The study also opened doors to opportunities for other energy environmental projects in India. One of these involves the effectiveness of the pollution control board in the state of Gujarat. Factory pollution in the state was monitored by a third-party audit market. For the most part, the auditors were simply collecting their fees and issuing positive reports, said Greenstone. “The problem is that these reports systematically understate the factories’ true emissions.”

The researchers conducted a trial involving the random assignment of auditors to factories and the payment to auditors from a central pool, rather than from the factory owners. “After fixing the economic incentives so that the auditors were no longer beholden to the manufacturers, the auditors reported the truth,” said Greenstone. “And that allowed for more effective regulatory oversight.” The success of this study has generated a lot of interest and it may be expanded to other parts of the country.

It also caught the attention of the Indian Minister of Environment and Forests. The researchers talked with him about a cap-and-trade program for soot and other forms of particulate air pollution. They are now assisting the government in creating and evaluating the program, which would be the first cap-and-trade program ever in a developing country, Greenstone said.

“It has been a long and winding road from clay stoves in Orissa to a cap-and-trade program, but it has included several exciting steps at the intersection of research and policy,” said Greenstone. “And we got started on that road with an initial seed grant from the MIT Energy Initiative.”