Sunshine sustenance

Kevin Porter

Photo By Larry Dalton

You already know that Sacramento is the Capital City, the River City and the home of the Kings. But did you know Sacramento is also the world headquarters for Solar Cookers International—an organization that aims to teach the world to cook with sunlight? Solar Cookers, located at 1919 21st St., was founded right here in 1987 by local solar enthusiasts hoping to make a difference. Kevin Porter, office manager for SCI, told the SN&R how they’re doing just that, one ray at a time.

How does Solar Cookers International operate?

We’re a nonprofit organization. Our mission is to spread solar cooking worldwide. It’s a big goal and we have a small office. We have four staff members in Sacramento, which is the headquarters for the world. We have a smaller office in Nairobi, Kenya, and we have a miniature office in Ethiopia. … We operate a bit like a store. People can purchase products and all the profits go to our projects. However, 99 percent of what we do is education, teaching people how to solar cook. Our focus for the last few years has been our projects in Africa. We work primarily with refugees in camps.

How do you decide where to start a project?

We work with people who have wood-fuel shortages and lots of sunshine. In most of the countries we work in, people cook over fire. It’s usually women and children who gather the wood. It takes many hours a week. These countries have 200 to 300 days a year of really good sunshine. If we can help them solar cook a midday meal and possibly an early evening meal, that really cuts down on their need to gather wood; which is hard time-consuming work. Also, it helps save the forests, which are rapidly disappearing. Every day they have to walk a little farther for wood, because the tree they took it from yesterday gave its last branch.

How do the cookers get to Africa?

Our cookers for our Africa projects are produced in Africa. We have manufacturers in Kenya and Zimbabwe. We have full-time staffers in Africa, who are Africans, who run the projects from that side. Most of our “employees” are not official employees, although they do receive compensation from us. They are refugees in the camps who are trained in solar cooking, and then train others in their area.

Will you get to go to Africa?

Hopefully someday. We operate on a small budget for an international organization … so, we can’t afford to send too many people to Africa. For now, I have to get excited through pictures and stories like everybody else.

Do you use a solar cooker at home?

I do, actually. The cooking season in Sacramento is from March through September. I don’t solar cook all the time. The microwave is very convenient, but I made an effort this year to solar cook at least a few times a week.

Are solar cookers practical for an urban environment?

It depends. I would solar cook more often if I didn’t live in an apartment without a yard or a good place to set it outside. In many countries you have more access to rooftops. In my particular situation, it’s kind of difficult. I solar cook almost exclusively at the office. I make my lunch. We have a parking lot and I set it right outside my window. You’ve got to have space where there’s direct sunlight for at least one to two hours.

What do you cook in your solar cooker?

Bread. Baking in the solar cooker is really easy. I like to do casserole dishes where I throw in vegetables, tomatoes and peppers. One of my favorites is a rosemary potato dish. Cut up potatoes with the skins on, drizzle in some olive oil, add herbs and a little salt and pepper and just leave it. It’s marvelous.

Explain the physics of the cooker.

We tried to develop the simplest, most inexpensive cooker possible. It’s made of cardboard and, folded up, it’s the size of a notebook. It has a foil lining. It’s a one-pot cooker. When it opens up, the foil reflects light into the middle where the pot of food sits. The pot is black, because black becomes hot in the sun. This type of cooker needs to have either a clear bag or an upside down glass bowl acting as a greenhouse over the pot. The black color attracts the heat, converting light energy to heat energy. Then the clear enclosure lets the sun in but doesn’t allow it to escape. We usually achieve temperatures around 250 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s definitely hot enough to cook food safely and kill all the bacteria.

Is solar cooking the wave of the future?

I think it’s been the wave of the future for centuries now. It’s a pretty old technology. I believe it will play an important role in developing countries. We hope it will play a role in developed countries as well, but it can be a tough sell for people who are used to microwaves. It’s great for camping. It’s lightweight and requires no fuel. There are a lot of people who are enthusiastic about solar cooking around here. So in many ways it’s the wave of the future and in many ways it’s the wave of the past. We’re still trying to make people aware of it.