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Make Food When The Sun Shines: A Look at the Solar Cooker Scene in India
chillibreeze writer — Vilasini Kumar
You think of India and you think sunshine, heat and of course …people! With bright sun beating down on most days in India, the first thing someone who steps into a room after an extended outing in the sun is highly likely to say - “Phew, it is boiling hot out there!” If such is the sun’s calorific capacity, could the solar energy not be tapped and used to boil and cook, among other things?
The trigger to this article was the personal experience of Ralph Budelman, the promoter of Chillibreeze, who is in the process of discovering the capabilities of a solar cooker that he has recently acquired! Having bought a parabolic solar cooker from a persuasive salesman, he now swears by it! “We use it everyday to cook rice and dal (a kind of lentil preparation)” he said, when we met in his office and went on to wonder, aloud, whether the solar cooker was at all popular in India. He strongly felt that it would be a cheap cooking medium for those who have to otherwise depend on firewood. His experience of having seen women cooking in smoky firewood fed ovens in Bangalore was the basis for this conclusion. With migrant population constantly coming in to eke out a living in bigger cities, the chances of seeing posh multi-storied complexes alongside makeshift housing is high. The latter community is dependent on chopped firewood for fuel. As for the rural populace, firewood is in any case the most sought after fuel. Do check out www.greendesigns.org for some innovative designs to help make life better for the marginalised community.
What further got us interested in writing this report was the fact that there has been a steady rise in the prices of conventional fuels, like cooking gas, in India and at the same time there is an increased awareness about the need to protect our environment. One is given to understand that presently only 8 per cent of the energy used on earth comes from renewable resources. The rest 92 per cent is from fossil and nuclear fuel sources. It’s no secret that fossil fuels damage the environment, or that we are dangerously close to exhausting them completely. The solar energy options are, therefore, becoming more attractive. Isn't it time more of us started thinking of alternate options? Solar energy is being tapped for a variety of uses – from generating electricity to cooking. Here we take a closer look at solar cookers in general and see how they are faring in India in particular.
Once I stepped in to explore the world of solar cookers it did not take me long to realise that it is a subject that holds the fascination of many, and rightly so! Just consider this: what would you say if you had an option for using a cooking device which:
Would you not do everything to find out about this and get hold of one? These are exactly what solar cookers offer us. Yet very few of us seem to be using them! On top of this -
Both at the individual level and at the national level numerous people, organisations and Governments are involved in designing new solar cooking devices and popularizing them. The solar cooker is being used in over 25 countries the world over. Yet it is not ‘common’ to see people using it! Could it be just a sense of lethargy, which is keeping us away from exploring and adopting this medium?
Finding ways of channelising solar energy is not a newfound fascination. There are records to show that a Swiss naturalist designed a box type cooker in the year 1767! In fact, Indian scriptures talk about the efficacy of solar cooking:
An observation by Charlie and Fran Collins, users of the solar cooker, seems to confirm that the taste does improve when one uses solar energy! This is what they had posted on he web: “We have found that cooking with a solar cooker greatly improves the taste of the food. As an experiment we have cooked potatoes four different ways, in our oven, in our pressure cooker, in water and in our solar cooker. The potatoes were all from the same batch and we all definitely realized a much more earthly taste with the solar cooked potatoes than those cooked any other way. We have also found that meat as well as other foods does definitely taste better in our solar cooker, why I really do not know.” (source: http://www.ecovantageenergy.com/FAQ/faq20.html)
THE INDIAN SCENE: Some of the policy initiatives taken by the Indian Government to promote the use of solar energy in general are:
MNES is the nodal agency of the Government of India for all matters relating to non-conventional/renewable energy. For more information click on www.mnes.nic.in
Thanks to the subsidy programme, it is estimated that over 5, 41,000 box type solar cookers, were sold/ installed in India, up to the end of March 1993.
As the MNES felt that the use of solar energy for cooking and water heating was on the increase, the subsidy on solar water heaters and solar cookers were withdrawn in 1993-94. It is interesting to note that the Government continues to subsidize cooking gas, at a heavy cost to the exchequer, but is doing little about solar cookers. With over 40manufacturers of different types ofsolar cookers in the India, the combined capacity is to the tune of 75, 000 cookers pre annum. The manufacturers are mostly in the north - Delhi, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The cookers have to adhere to the norms recommended by the MNES and the end product needs to be approved by the Bureau of Indian Standards. We understand that an estimated ‘potential’ demand for solar cookers in India is nearly 10 million!
MNES has also opened Aditya Solar Shops across the country, which serves as convenient consumer points for sales, service and repair of renewable energy devices. I visited their shop in Bangalore. The most popular item, going by the numbers on display, were solar water heating units, which can be used instead of the conventional geysers. Also available was a model of a box type solar cooker priced at Rs. 2,500. Parabolic cookers too were available, the bigger one costing around Rs. 5,500.and a smaller, more compact version, costs about half the price. I was given to understand that there is not much demand for solar cookers.
1. In my effort to contact a user I mailed one of the manufacturers of solar cookers, Rohitas, (www.rohitassolarcoker.com) and got in touch with an enthusiastic Executive in-charge, Rahul Singh Talwad, who is also a user! He has been using a solar cooker for the last six years and says that it is very versatile and that it can be used even for deep frying and for making ‘Chapattis’ (flat bread made on a griddle) He feels that “the reason (for lack of popularity) is lack of advertising and awareness among the citizens. There are (only a) few medium scaleindustries involved in manufacturing solar cookers and they cannot afford heavy advertising budgets”, he says. He opined that Governmental support is essential.
2. According to Mr. S. Narayanswamy, a retired senior civil servant of India and the author of a book about solar cooking called ‘Making the Most of Sunshine A Handbook of Solar Energy for the Common Man’, had this to say in one of his interviews: “One can cook not only food, but also roast nuts, dry vegetables and fruits (taking care to keep the glass lid slightly open to control the heat input), pasteurize water and even bake bread on a clear day at noon. The solar cooker is very versatile machine. A solar cooker kept out in the sun is like an oven kept switched on in the 'on' position. You can place anything in it anytime and take it out when done. What is important for solar cooking is not how hot the sun is but how clear the sunlit sky is. In most places in India one can cook for 70-80% of the days in a year. One can thus solar-cook in all seasons, with unmatched cost-efficiency” Solar cooker is used regularly in his house.
3. “There are many factors at work here. First and foremost, the vast majority of the world's population does not even know that it is possible to cook with the sun. When they find out about it there is almost universal enthusiasm, especially in regions where the gathering of cooking fuel and the process of cooking over a smoky fire is a great burden. There are many factors that need to be in place to make it possible for poor people to solar cook on an on-going basis. The most successful projects have been ones where the need was the greatest, the weather the most favorable, and where the solar cooking promoters have taken a long-range approach to the transition. An example of this is the work by Solar Cookers International in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. http://solarcooking.org/solarcooking-faq.htm:
The technology finds great use in Community Kitchens in India: While solar cookers have not made in-roads into individual homes in India, it is making waves in community kitchens. It proved a saviour in the aftermath of a major earthquake, which hit Gujarat in January 2001. Thousands had been rendered homeless and thanks to the effort of Girija Sharan of the Indian Institute of Management, Solar cookers were quickly set up and these fed quake survivors and helped doctors heat water to sterilise equipment!
India has the distinction of having the world’s two largest solar cooking systems. One is installed at Tirupati, a popular pilgrimage in the State of Andhra Pradesh, at a cost of Rs 11.8 million. This has a capacity to cook for 15,000 persons daily!
The other is at Brahmakumari’s Ashram at Mount Abu. Set up with financial assistance from the German Government, this system consists of 24 Scheffler paraboloid reflectors, two each of which are installed to focus sunlight on a square type insulated fin and tube receiver. Twelve such receivers are focused on by 24 reflectors. This has a capacity to cook for 10,000 persons daily!Click on http://www.ecovantageenergy.com/FAQ/faq20.html for more details.
The massive solar cooking system at the Brahmakumari Ashram in Mount Abu, Rajasthan, India
Phew! The world of solar power is truly awe inspiring! Where is the need to spend millions on exploration to find ‘hidden’ oil resources to run our lives when there is abundant availability of a very ‘visible’ source of tremendous energy staring us in the face? Everywhere where sun shines is a potential location!
Also, who wouldn’t want a pollution free environment? Who wouldn’t want greenery and forests to last forever? Who wouldn’t want a free source of ‘power’? I should think everyone! I am now a convert and am ready to jump into the bandwagon of the promoters of the use of solar energy and make a beginning by promoting the use of solar cookers! Make food when the sun shines is the tune I am singing these days.
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