Hundreds of people Saturday cooked using only the power of the sun – a practice little used in the United States, but considered a liberating tool for women in developing countries that also helps curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The solar cooking event at William Land Park capped a three-day conference by Sacramento-based Solar Cookers International. Attendees came from as far as Bolivia and Kenya. The cookers on display ranged from low-tech affairs featuring cardboard and aluminum foil to reflect the sun to sophisticated cookers featuring a giant lens on huge pedestals.
Yet all highlighted the basic simplicity of the solar cooker – all that’s needed is a surface to reflect and concentrate sunlight.
Attendees shared a passion for a way of cooking that emits little pollution and that requires only a sunny day as fuel. Nearly 3 billion people in the developing world cook food and heat their homes with traditional cook stoves or open fires, which account for more than half of the greenhouse gases contributed by cooking methods. A global study released in 2010 estimated that exposure to smoke from the cooking is the fourth-worst risk factor for disease in developing countries.
Rocio Maldonado, who flew in from La Paz, Bolivia, works in Peru and Bolivia where cow dung is used for fuel. On Saturday, she baked an apple in a tiny 3-foot-by-3-foot cooker.
“These people live in areas were the radiation of the sun is very strong,” Maldonado said. “They live in dry places where there is very little wood or vegetation. So, accessing fuel is difficult.”
Catlin Powers, who hails from Hong Kong, got into the solar cooker movement as a budding chemist studying climate change in the Himalayas after nomadic women questioned why she was studying outdoor pollution when there was so much pollution inside their homes.
“I went and got my monitors and began measuring the air inside and found the air they were breathing inside was 10 times more polluted than the air is in Beijing,” said Powers, co-founder of the One Earth Design solar cooker company.
In 2007, Powers stopped her climate research and decided to live and travel with Tibetan nomads in the Himalayan plateau, helping them improve their adobe stoves by designing better combustion chambers and adding chimneys. They eventually transitioned to the idea of a solar cooker, creating 54 renditions before settling on a model.
To date, several thousand of her solar cookers, shaped like a reflective dish, are used in rural China, she said.
Among the greatest impact of the solar cooker is that it frees women in developing nations from the time-consuming hunt for cooking fuel, said Julie Green, executive director of Solar Cookers International.
“Some women in places like Africa, South America and Nepal spend three to five hours walking from their homes to pick up firewood or animal dung to burn so they can cook,” Green said.
But with a solar cooker, the need for finding fuel is eliminated.
“If a woman has three or five hours a day free, it changes her life. This means she’s safer because she does not have to wander so far from the safety of her home,” Green said. “When women have those extra four or five hours free they can do things like weave mats, make baskets and plant more crops and increase income.”
Solar cooking also frees children – who are sometimes enlisted in collecting firewood – to attend school.
“If they’re spending three or five hours a day doing this, they’re not going to school,” Green said. “So, this solar cooking thing – it’s is not just about cooking, and leaving biomass in the environment. It’s is about changing lives.”
Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.