It’s practically impossible to talk to artist Mary Frank without having her bend your ear about solar cookers. “I proselytize like crazy about this,” she once told this reporter and then explained the reason why—how the low-tech devices are enabling people in rural areas of Africa, Asia, South and Central America and the Near East to cook without using wood, thereby preventing deforestation and in the meantime saving women (who are mostly doing the cooking) long treks in the countryside in search of wood that are not only time consuming and exhaustive but may put them at risk of getting raped. Furthermore, the cookers are affordable—the most popular models overseas cost just a few dollars—and clean, preventing people from being exposed to the noxious pollutants in woodfire smoke. For nearly 20 years, Frank has been a dedicated supporter of Solar Cookers International (SCI), a nonprofit organization that works with the United Nations to promote solar cooking.
Hudson Valley residents can see for themselves how solar cooking works at a free event, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday, June 19 at the Dorsky Museum on the SUNY New Paltz campus, with a talk and demonstration at SUNY New Paltz by Mary Frank and Alan Bigelow, Ph.D., a physicist who serves as the science director of SCI and the organization’s main representative to the UN.
Frank and Bigelow are experienced hands, having conducted previous demonstrations, including one at the UN in which Frank and two African women cooked meat, fish, vegetables and a cake as well as heated and pasteurized water in various types of cookers. In recent years, SCI has hosted large-scale demonstrations featuring 100+ solar cookers and solar cooks at a public park in Sacramento, where it is headquartered.
Founded in 1987, SCI advocates for and conducts research, collects data, provides training, and otherwise supports solar cooking initiatives worldwide working with government agencies, NGOs, community collaborators and individuals. It also works with the UN to promote the benefits of carbon-free cooking, targeting in particular those areas most impoverished and vulnerable to climate change. (Solar cooking helps fulfill all 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.)
According to data published on solarcookers.org, there are currently more than four million cookers in use, which are positively impacting more than 14 million people and preventing the emissions of nearly six million metric tons of CO2 a year, equivalent to removing more than 1.25 million cars off the road. An interactive map on the website shows how many cookers are being used in hundreds of locations around the world,including large-scale projects with numbers that reach well into the five digits in parts of China, Africa, and India.
The number of cookers in the U.S. is much smaller, though Frank and Bigelow say the benefits are no less worthwhile in this country, saving people on energy costs, providing an alternative when the electricity is out, and generally helping the planet. (Needless to say, both have cookers. The day I called Bigelow for an interview, he had a pot of garbanzo beans in a solar oven at his home in Upper Nyack. “It’s free energy, and we’re not going to be heating up our home to make it hotter, curbing our urge to use our AC,” he said.)
There are many different models of solar cookers, several of which the pair will be demonstrating at SUNY New Paltz. All have been tested under SCI’s Performance Evaluation Process (PEP), which is used to measure the standard cooking power — a performance specification in watts — and to help consumers make informed decisions. “We’ve had more traction [with projects] when best practices are applied,” said Bigelow, which he outlined as follows: “Make sure you have proper documentation in terms of monitoring and evaluation. Try to use local women as solar cooking champions to establish a good connection with the local population. Use cookers tested by SCI and include follow up and training.”
The stakes are high in places like Kakuma Refugee Camp, in Kenya, where approximately 200,000 people are living in a barren area with very little cooking fuel, such as firewood. Meanwhile, there is a tremendous amount of sunshine in Kenya. “We’re working with a local organization building cookers in the country, testing them at a university in Nairobi, and implementing them at the camp following best practices,” said Bigelow.
This low-tech device can be made at home: all you need to build a basic solar cooker is cardboard, glue, some aluminum foil, a black cooking pot, and a small greenhouse, such as an oven bag or a sphere made out of two Pyrex glass bowls, to let light in and trap the heat, according to Bigelow. Visitors to the SCI website can download a multitude of open-source designs and access a 50-page guide on how to make and use a solar cooker. The technology keeps evolving, with cookers being developed that can store the energy from the sun, which would enable use when the sun isn’t shining. Also, solar cookers can be used in winter, even when the sun is low, because low humidity in winter reduces scattered sunlight by water particles in the atmosphere and, hence, more sunlight is available for solar cooking.
To date, solar cookers have mainly been adapted in poor rural areas that have good access to sun, said Bigelow, adding that their use in many large cities is challenged by severe air pollution, which reduces the sunlight. “For approximately one third of our planet’s population, people are still cooking with polluting fuels, such as firewood, dung, and charcoal, which has health, environmental and economic impacts, particularly for women, who are generally tasked with the cooking,” he said. “Furthermore, young girls are often going out to scavenge for firewood, which may take a few hours a day.” Collecting fuel can lead to conflict particularly near refugee camps, where the residents are competing with the locals for a scarce resource, leading to incidences of rape and violence, he added.
Bigelow got interested in renewable energy and sustainable technologies back in the mid-2000s, when he co-founded a solar-powered band in the Hudson Valley. While taking a climate solutions road tour in India highlighting climate issues and local climate solutions, the band drove electric cars made in India and met with a notable Indian solar cooking entrepreneur. It then took a nine-day solar trek in Nepal accompanied by a group of trekkers from the Netherlands whose leaders had initiated a large-scale solar cooking project in a refugee camp; between performances, the band and the trekkers relied on solar cookers for all their meals.
Bigelow said one exciting development is institutional solar cooking. In India and Nepal, solar cookers are being installed on the tops of ashrams, hospitals, and schools. One of the world’s largest solar cooking facilities, if not the largest, is the Sai Baba Ashram at Shirdi in Maharashtra, India, where 73 parabolic dishes collect energy from the sun whose heat is transferred into steam which is then conveyed through a plumbing system to indoor kitchens serving tens of thousands of people per day. In China, “a lot of large-scale solar cooking projects are tied to carbon credit efforts,” he noted.Solar cooking “should be pushed everywhere as part of our existing array of sustainable solutions we all can include in our daily lives now, on par with the bicycle as an option for sustainable travel,” said Bigelow. “There’s a great opportunity anywhere there’s sun. I hope more people in the U.S. adopt solar cooking as another option for energy security.”
“There are no downsides, absolutely none,” said Frank. “On sunny days I put whatever I have on hand, chicken, rice, shrimp, fish, eggs, in the solar cooker between 10:30 and four. You don’t put any water in if you’re cooking vegetables, and it’s healthy and delicious.”