Two and half billion people around the world still cook every day over smoky, open fires, many of them in countries where the sun shines up to ten months a year. While it is important that they use fuel-efficient stoves when cooking with wood or charcoal, they should also be able to use the free light of the sun for cooking and boiling water. Most have no idea that it’s possible to do this with an inexpensive solar cooker. Highly efficient solar cookers can be made with cardboard boxes, clear plastic bags and aluminum foil. More expensive manufactured versions are made with molded plastic, glass, wood and aluminum sheeting. Readers who want to learn more about these devices or even build one can check out Solar Cookers International’s archive on the web.
In Afghanistan and many other developing countries there is a critical shortage of fuel wood for cooking. When I was there, I saw children as young as five or six scavenging for reeds, bushes and even garbage, for their mothers to use in their cooking fires. In Afghanistan there was also the tragedy of women and children killed or terribly burned when they tried to cook with black market jet fuel that they thought was kerosene.
My solar cooking epiphany took place in Afghanistan on a cold but sunny March afternoon when I was traveling back to camp with some soldiers after a day long patrol into the mountains. I suddenly recalled how I had built a solar cooker when I was a Girl Scout. I went online and found the website of Solar Cookers International. They had construction plans for solar cookers. I downloaded a few designs, got some cardboard and foil from the British Army cooks in our field kitchen, and over the next few weeks built several models and tested them on the roof of our compound in Mazar-i-Sharif, just as Angela does in my novel. When I came back from Afghanistan I began writing about and demonstrating solar ovens (my first demo was in the center courtyard of the State Department). I have since demonstrated solar cookers at the Pentagon, the National Defense University, National Geographic, the World Wildlife Fund, the U.S. Botanic Gardens and in front of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
I was eventually invited to join the boards of two solar cooking organizations. As my expertise increased I began to receive invitations to demonstrate solar cookers overseas, something I have been doing now for almost five years.
Last September Secretary of State Clinton announced a new initiative called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. The U.S. government, the Shell Foundation, and other governments and international organizations that are funding this initiative, have committed more than $50 million to develop clean cook stoves and get them into at least 100 million households in the next ten years. I am one of only two solar cooking experts invited to serve as volunteers with a GACC working group. We have been told that there may be some funding for solar cookers although the Department of Energy has already announced that it be spending all of its $12.5 million contribution to the GACC on researching biomass stoves. We are hopeful that solar thermal technology will eventually become a significant part of the GACC initiative. The development community cannot ignore the potential of solar cooker technology to help the world’s poor tap into the free and endless energy of the sun for cooking and boiling water.
Some remarkable developments in solar cooking technology are taking place in the U.S. and elsewhere, but in order for the organizations promoting this technology to lower manufacturing costs and begin large-scale production, sales and distribution, their efforts need greater support from the international donor community. These technologies include: Scheffler community kitchens, One Earth Design’s 3-in-1 portable parabolic solar cooker, Sun BD Corp’s Solar Focus hybrid, solar-electric oven, SCI’s Cookit, Solar Household Energy’s Hot Pot, the Sun Oven, the Devos, the SOS Sport and the Ulog box cooker.
If you are interested in learning more about the many types of solar cookers being built and used around the world, please go to the Solar Cookers International website.