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Capturing the power of the sun

Don Larson wants to popularize solar cooking to save energy

Who wouldn't want to eat a tasty, sun-cooked meal? That is the question that Don Larson, assistant manager at Common Ground, a local garden store, is asking. Larson got his start in solar cooking when he was in high school.

"I wanted to show my parents a different way of cooking," he said.

But, at first he wasn't all too successful. He struggled to build an efficient oven that worked to cook food properly. It wasn't until six years after college that he started to really take advantage of solar cooking when he was taught how to build and use energy-effective solar ovens.

He now uses solar ovens at home to do pretty much anything a normal stove does. He enjoys cooking vegetables, meat and rice as well as baking bread and cookies in his oven at home.

And now that's he's mastered solar cooking, he'll be passing on his knowledge in a class on Solar Cooking at Common Ground on June 11.

All it takes is a little pre-heating, angling the oven towards the sun and then setting the food in the proper pot -- ceramic or cast iron -- in the oven. He uses both his home-made solar ovens as well as his store-bought ones to help satisfy his cooking fix. His favorite foods to cook in his oven at home are currently winter squash and apricot cobbler.

Larson said that solar cooking is "clean backyard fun" and "great for socials and camping."

A solar oven uses no energy besides the sun and typically only takes 15 minutes longer than traditional ovens to cook food. And store-bought solar ovens cost almost the same price as a regular stove.

"It is a huge energy savings," he said.

When asked why more people haven't been turned onto solar cooking, Larson responded that many people "don't understand how easy it is to turn it into a positive experience."

As long as it is sunny, no matter the temperature outside, "all you have to do is aim it towards the sun," he said.

Although Larson was interested in solar cooking since his teen years, he ultimately became a senior research and development engineer at Hewlett Packard. But, he said, "I wanted to have a more direct impact on my customers, and corporate life didn't allow that."

In 2001 he quit his job at HP and became assistant manager at Common Ground "because it had a healthy work environment," he added.

Now, at age 48, Larson is not only committed to working at Common Ground, but has a broader goal for the future of solar-powered ovens. He wants people in the Bay Area to widely adapt solar ovens into their kitchens because of both their energy efficiency and ease of use. He believes that the more people who use, the better off we are as a community. But beyond the Bay Area, Larson wants to hasten the introduction of solar ovens into less fortunate countries.

"We should use our affluence to give to Third World countries," he said.

People should use solar cooking in under-developed countries because it would make it easier on families who need to walk miles and miles for fuel to burn in their stoves, he added. These families struggle to pay for fuel when they can barely afford to feed themselves. Adapting these solar ovens could provide much needed relief for families that are struggling.

He has optimistic hopes for the future of solar cooking. Organizations such as Transition Palo Alto and Solar Cooking International both promote solar cooking as something to adapt to better our future.

He said that these organizations are "interested in solar cooking being taught in every city" and making sure that "this knowledge gets distributed."

Larson is also doing his part in getting solar cooking knowledge distributed to the masses. In his solar cooking class he uses two purchasable ovens, the "Global Sun Oven" and "Solar Cookit," to teach the fundamentals of preheating, aiming and cooking in a solar oven. The class includes demonstrations of recipes to use in solar ovens. Larson also teaches the basics of thermodynamics so that students can build their own ovens.

"We get a lot of do-it-yourselfers," he said.

An author himself, of the "Happy Chicken Solar Cookbook," Larson continues his stand as an advocate and solar cooking enthusiast.

What: Solar Cooking Class

When: Saturday, June 11, noon to 2 p.m.

Where: Common Ground Education Center, 559 College Ave., Palo Alto

Cost: $31 + $4 materials fee

Info: 650-493-6072 or

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