Real Estate

Heat up your food, not the planet

Solar cooking employs time, preparation to aid in household energy savings

by Christina Dong

Even with water at the forefront of conservation concerns, saving electricity remains a pertinent goal for homeowners in the face of continuing climate change. Switching up a simple task like cooking is a lesser-discussed step to take, requiring more planning and time than a one-time light bulb change -- but it's a load off the planet and off your wallet in the long run.

On Saturday, Sept. 13, Carol Cox, who spent nearly 20 years managing Ecology Action's research garden, will teach a course at Common Ground called "Cooking Your Food With the Sun." During the two-hour class, Cox will discuss the principles of solar cooking and explain how to use seven different kinds of solar cookers differing in capability and complexity.

The class will be a demonstration, as time will not allow for a hands-on workshop, Cox said.

What you can do with a solar oven -- and thus how much energy you save -- depends on how much time and money you would like to put into the preparation.

"There's everything from a little piece of cardboard and tin foil to $300 manufactured contraptions," Cox said.

The level of complication and attention required depends on the choice of cooker. A $300 Sun Oven, a plastic outer shell over a wooden frame with a glass window and four reflectors, can heat up to conventional oven temperatures, while a cardboard box oven takes longer to cook at a lower temperature.

The cardboard box resembles a slow cooker, Cox said, to be set outside in the morning and taken inside in the evening when the food is ready. Though it takes a full day, the advantage is that the food will not burn and there is no need to stir or otherwise attend to the dish.

"It takes a bit of thinking in advance about what you're going to be eating and when," Cox said of the cardboard cooker.

However, a significant perk of the Sun Oven is that it is "perfectly usable in the middle of winter," Cox said, noting how the plastic shell can withstand damp air.

Solar cooking, no matter which method, requires little space and can easily be done on an apartment balcony. Most ovens are "the size of a fruit box ... you just need good sun exposure," Cox said.

Other cookers that Cox will bring to the demonstration include the CooKit reflective panel cooker and the HotPot, a glass bowl and enamel pot with a reflector that folds flat for storage. Another device, the All Seasons Solar Cooker, uses a reflective plastic bag "that you unfold and reconfigure with four bolts," Cox said. "The inside is totally reflective. ... It's very ingenious."

Cox took interest in solar cooking in the 1980s when she read newspaper articles about two women in Arizona who developed a solar box cooker made from cardboard, insulation, tin foil and glass. Having spent many years living in West Africa, she saw women who walked miles to gather cooking fuel and thought of how a solar device "would save the women from carrying all that wood."

She soon became involved with Solar Cookers International (SCI), traveling to Sacramento to attend cooking workshops held by the organization. At that point, the process of making a solar cooker involved carefully measuring and cutting panels from large refrigerator boxes and taping the pieces together, she said.

But now, "one of the things we have in abundance is boxes" of all sizes, she said. It's only a matter of finding one (or two put together) that will fit your pot.

More advanced technologies continued to evolve as well, providing wintertime cooking capabilities for Sun Oven owners, and, across the globe, a time- and firewood-saving way to purify water in refugee camps. The WAPI (water purification indicator) device developed by SCI uses a soy-based wax that melts only when water is at a temperature that purifies it.

Cox's involvement with SCI was a natural complement to her background in ecology and sustainable farming. After teaching in West Africa and the West Indies, she worked for almost 20 years as the research garden manager for Ecology Action, a nonprofit promoting small-scale, sustainable, organic food raising, best known for its Grow Biointensive Sustainable Mini-Farming system. Palo Alto's Common Ground education center is a project of Ecology Action as well.

As for her own gardening, "I've always stuck a few things in the ground wherever I was living," Cox said.

This became an understatement upon her move to Willits, where she turned an empty lot into a bountiful garden with the help of neighbors, and still maintains the garden today.

To Palo Alto, Cox will bring with her an emphasis on a lifestyle that is beneficial to both people and the planet -- a concept that traveled with her from West Africa to Willits.

"People have no real concept of the energy they're using because it's so readily available," Cox said. "(Solar cooking) is one easy way to economize on our footprint."

At least try going a weekend without using the stove, she said. "I think it's one really rewarding way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels."

What: Cooking Your Food With the Sun

When: Saturday, Sept. 13, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

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

Cost: $35

Info: Common Ground

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