Solar Household Energy: Solar cooking for economic development and environmental relief


Half of the world’s population relies on wood fires to cook.

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State of the Art of Solar Cooking: A Global Survey of Practices & Promotion Programs
by By Barbara Knudson, Ph.D.

(Dr. Barbara Knudson is a sociologist who has specialized in women’s affairs in the developing world for the last 40 years. A leading advocate of solar cooking since the mid-eighties, she has applied her professional discipline to evaluation of the technology’s potential and to documentation of its promotion. Dr. Knudson has extensive experience with the organization solar cooking programs in the field. She is a charter member of Solar Household Energy, inc.)

Executive Summary

In her new global survey of solar cooking Dr. Knudson reports that despite an urgent need for the technology and strong demand in many communities where it has been introduced, there is still much work to be done.  Specifically, the study finds ongoing promotional efforts in only a small fraction of countries where the technology could offer great social, economic, environmental and health benefits.  This suggests a good news/bad news situation:  Opportunities to improve lives through the introduction of solar cooking are as extensive as the need is compelling. However, inherent challenges have impeded proliferation of this technology.

Trees, shrubs, dung and fossil fuels are the household energies of the developing world. As the supply of these traditional fuels continues to diminish or increase in price, there is evermore urgent need for an alternative. One exists. People can cook with the free energy of the sun on all continents except Antarctica. In fact, for many millions, solar cooking is becoming their only option.

Recent advances in the design of solar ovens have made them commercially viable, culturally acceptable, economically affordable and environmentally beneficial.

This brief summary of the full 230-page “State of the Art of Solar Cooking” will highlight:

I. The demand, origins and rationale for solar cooking

II. Different kinds of promotion efforts

III. Where programs exist, or don’t but should; and

IV. Conclusions & recommendations

A copy of the full report can be downloaded by clicking here. Note: The file is large and it may take several minutes to download.

I. The demand, origins and rationale for solar cooking

The benefits of solar cooking should appear self-evident to those who reflect upon the nature of the technology and the problems it can address. However, anecdotal evidence of demand for solar ovens and personal accounts of the dire circumstances that give rise to it is useful. Such evidence illustrates motivations for the promotional efforts documented in the study.

The following statements are drawn from more than two dozen included in the survey:

“Using fuel wood contributes to the deforestation of our rural community, and foraging for wood is a Calvary for the women who do this exhausting work. After trying the solar cooker… our wish is to acquire one for each household.” – Babacar Mbaye, Medina Dakar, Senegal

“Many communities in [Bolivia] are in dire need of a new source of energy for cooking… their source of firewood is virtually exhausted. I therefore write with some urgency, requesting any help you might be able to provide on the subject of solar cookers.” – Tyler Ball, Queen’s University

“Everything became disastrous. We had to go a far distance to collect fuel, and people were killed by snakes, heat stroke, or landmines.” – Man in a refugee camp in Balkh, Afghanistan

“Imported bottled gas… has experienced a five-fold increase [in cost]since 1995. The response [to a solar oven program] has been overwhelming at times.” – E. Abeyrathne, EMACE, Sri Lanka

“We have sold about 1,500 [solar ovens] in one year… Solar ovens are becoming popular… there are entrepreneurs who want an early edge on the solar oven market.” -- Abdullah Sami Paksoy, Adana, Turkey

Far from being a modern invention, solar energy is known to have been applied to cooking over two centuries ago, when in 1767 a French-Swiss scientist, Horace de Saussure, cooked fruit in a miniature greenhouse placed on a black tabletop. But solar cooking didn’t move from this realm of scientific experimentation to practical application until the late 1950s. Then, M.I.T.’s Maria Telkes developed the basic design for the classic “box cooker.” It was an insulated plywood container with an inclined top of double glazing and four large flared reflectors.

By the 1970s, there was growing awareness of environmental degradation in developing countries where cooking on open fires predominates. This, and the OPEC “oil shocks” of 1974, fueled solar cooking advocacy. In 1980, Barbara Kerr, a solar cooking pioneer in Arizona, developed a kit enabling people to build their own simple solar cooking device. A few years later, Ms. Kerr and others organized Solar Cookers International (SCI), as a forum for solar cooking promoters around the world.

At its founding in 1987, SCI estimated that at least one billion people on the planet, (20% of the population at the time), could benefit from solar cooking. Today, SCI projects that number has doubled to at least one third of the world’s six billion souls. (See attached map.)

These estimates are based on the number of people living in countries or regions where:

1) Sunshine is sufficient to power solar ovens;

2) Cooking with firewood and other forms of increasingly scarce biomass predominates; and

3) High cost and/or simple lack of availability preclude use of fossil fuels or electricity for cooking. 

Some benefits of solar cooking in poor countries may be easy to see; other benefits less so. The three most obvious:

  • Solar energy is free, preserving meager financial resources;
  • Time women must devote to foraging for firewood can be spent more productively and,
  • Environmental degradation is arrested.

Perhaps less obvious are the improvements possible in these pernicious conditions:

  • Women’s unremitting inhalation of smoke from wood fires causes respiratory diseases of pandemic proportions;
  • Children are frequently burned by falling into cooking fires;
  • Women who must carry heavy loads of firewood often suffer orthopedic injuries; and
  • In areas of conflict, foraging for wood exposes women to extreme physical danger, as is the case in Darfur state of western Sudan today.

For the above reasons, a wide variety of nonprofit organizations, governments, international organizations, private enterprises and dedicated individuals have been pursuing a range of strategies to disseminate solar cooking technology.

II. Different kinds of promotion efforts

The strategy of most promotional efforts combines training groups of women to solar cook with the provision to them of subsidized solar ovens. In some cases, the ovens are manufactured locally. In others, they are imported.

Here are a few notable examples:

United Nations:  Sporadic U.N. promotions have been conducted by the World Food Program, the High Commission for Refugees and UNESCO. These have all been of limited duration.

International Non-governmental Organizations: Rotary International has financed and dispatched solar cooking trainers to galvanize local Rotary organizations in several Latin American and African countries, as well as in Turkey. The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts has done similar work.

National programs: Both government and nonprofit private organizations in the United States and Europe, (especially France, Germany, Switzerland and Holland), have conducted solar cooking promotions in the developing world. Principal U.S.–based groups include Solar Cookers International (www.solarcooking.org ), Solar Household Energy Inc. ( www.SHE-inc.org), the Solar Oven Society ( www.solarovens.org), The Sun Stove Organization ( www.sungravity.com) and Sun Ovens International ( www.sunoven.com). Some organizations combine for-profit business-based distribution models with traditional NGO approaches.

III. Where programs exist, or don’t but should

As the table below indicates, 61% of 213 countries examined are suitable for solar cooking, based on the criteria of climate, economics and political stability. Predictably, the European continent, with its high proportion of countries distant from the equator and relatively limited economic motivation for solar cooking, has only a handful of countries suitable for broad-scale promotion efforts.

In contrast, at least 85% of the countries in Africa, the Americas and Oceania are highly appropriate for solar cooking promotion efforts. Yet only 41% of these countries has ever been the site of a solar cooking promotion effort. In addition, most promotion efforts are modest in scope. If one assumes that less than half of such programs are ongoing (a conservative assumption at best), it is abundantly clear that solar cooking promotion – whatever the strategy or business model – has a long way to go before saturating suitable venues. Suggestions for accelerating the promotion of solar cooking are summarized in the following section.

Solar cooking promotion opportunities seized -- and missed
Continent Number of countries suitable for solar cooking programs today* Number of countries in continent reviewed % of countries suitable within continent % of suitable countries with ongoing programs**
Africa

48

56

86%

29%

Asia

19

49

39%

42%

Europe***

4

40

10%

0%

N & Cntrl Am

30

34

88%

20%

Oceania

17

20

85%

12%

S America

12

14

86%

33%

Total

130

213

61%

26%

Source:  State of the Art of Solar Cooking: A Global Survey, by Barbara Knudson, Ph.D.

* Suitability assessment based on climate, plus current political and economic environment.

** Conservatively assumes that only half of programs are ongoing.

*** Europe is a significant source of solar cooking device manufacturing and program management

IV. Conclusions & recommendations

Solar cooking holds the promise of alleviating environmental, economic and health problems associated with cooking with wood, shrubs, charcoal and biomass in the developing world. Yet efforts to promote the practice have fallen far short of their potential.

1.  Enlightened government policies on solar cooking should be aggressively promoted. Most nations have done little to support solar cooking. Many, though inadvertently, have created obstacles to successful solar cooking promotion initiatives. Among these are subsidy for the price of fossil fuels.

2. Multi-nation solar cooking promotion groups should convene an international conference to facilitate greater coordination of their efforts.

3. Systematic educational programs to promote solar cooking exist in some countries but must be established in many more where the need for alternative household energy becomes ever more urgent. It might be practical for advocacy groups around the world to agree on spheres of focus to this end.

4. International women’s organizations should be targeted as prime candidates for promoting solar cooking. Such organizations include the Association of Women in Development, Countrywomen of the World, the International Council of Women, and the International Home Economics Association.

5. The quality of data evaluating the success and failure of different solar cooking promotion efforts must be improved and standardized in order to attract greater support from public entities and NGOs, and to facilitate commercial distribution of solar cooking products.

6. The structures now in place for the international coordination of solar cooking advocacy operate on budgets that severely restrict their potential. These include Solar Cookers International, its Solar Cooking Archive and its SOLARCOOKING-L chat group. These and others with similar purpose must be funded at an adequate level. We cannot expect that this function will be assumed by any international organizations on a sustained basis.


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