Small solar cooker design can have big implications

March 30, 2016

Small solar cooker design can have big implications

The Daily Observer
March 30, 2016
By: Ryan Paulsen

For Petawawa solar company Glenergy president Glen MacGillivray, a new solar cooker holds not only a solution for Canadian recreation enthusiasts looking to avoid breaching fire bans while camping, but also a possible way for millions of people around the world to access a level of clean, efficient, reliable and healthy cooking that otherwise would be impossible.

"One of the biggest energy uses on the planet is cooking," he says, "and one of the most equitably distributed resources is sunshine. At least, it's the one that's most equitably distributed in places that have the least money. Finland doesn't have that much sunshine, but they're doing okay."

The device in question is the GoSun Sport solar cooker, first introduced to the world through a Kickstarter campaign in 2014, and now on sale in Canada at Glenergy and only one other Canadian outlet, in BC.

Using parabolic metal reflectors, the cooker harnesses focused energy from the sun and directs it at a tube of glass not unlike the inside of a Thermos. The end result is an array that can cook a meal for two or three people within 20 minutes without the use of any fuels whatsoever.

"The benefits are legion," says MacGillivray. "Take one device. You don't need firewood, you don't need fuel, you don't need dry matches. All you need is a reasonably bright day."

The company, based in Cincinnati, also has a commercial-grade unit on sale, and will be debuting a slightly larger "grill" version of the GoSun Sport later this year.

What interests MacGillivray, though, are the implications for bringing reliable cooking technology to the most impoverished and under-serviced parts of the developing world, where many of the previous solar options simply weren't designed to fit their needs.

"Solar cooking that is socially acceptable and culturally sensitive is very difficult to crack," he explains. "The places that are having the biggest problems are typically doing their cooking on a three-stone fire in their hut. And they simmer all day, making tea, entertaining friends. It's an all-day thing."

He says that trying to convince someone from a culture used to that cooking experience to leave their home and cook relatively quickly out in the blazing sun is an uphill, and likely doomed, battle. Other solutions, such as developing a multiple-reflector solution that gathers the solar beam outside before reflecting it into the home, hold other risks, such as the significant fire risk posed by such a concentrated source of heat and light.

"Any kid with a magnifying glass can tell you what you could do with that," he laughs.

The slightly science-fiction-sounding option of using a "light pipe" or fibre optics to bring the solar energy indoors could work, but there's a definite expense gap.

"That was going to be $100-150,000 solution," he says. "We're looking for a $20 solution."

A compact, cool-to-the-touch, portable and reliable source of cooking heat could be the answer to a lot of problems, including economic.

"There's an unstated assumption when talking about this stuff that the wood people are burning to cook with is free," he says, "and that's not true. Pretty much everywhere, that wood is under someone's control, and they get paid.

"With [solar] lighting, we're looking at $1.50 a week in kerosene that we're replacing," MacGillivray. "With firewood or charcoal, it's 50 cents to $1.50 a day, so it's a much bigger problem. And you can live without light. It's tough to live without cooked food on this planet. You're going to get sick."

Taking a bird's eye view of the technologies on offer at his retail location in Petawawa is a conscious and longstanding trait of MacGillivray.

"The only things that interest me are things that have broader implications. Here, the only things we do are things that people want, or we can convince people to want. There's no underlying, desperate need. You don't need cold beer at the cottage while you watch the game. And that's half of our business right there. But with all of the technology that I need in my head and on my team to fulfil that need, now a guy can open a store selling drinks and refrigerated foods. He can make a business out of putting the game on a TV, and now he has a livelihood and his kids can go to school. It's all the same equipment, just used differently, and with the benefit that you only need a panel less than half the size to use the same stuff in Africa. There's 2.5 times as much energy from the sun available in Nairobi as there is here."