Photograph by Becky Harlan, National Geographic
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A simple solar cooker, surrounded by reflective panels, can cook a chicken without creating pollution.
Photograph by Becky Harlan, National Geographic
The Plate

Want to Cook Sustainably? Go Solar

If you’ve ever been stuck in a black car on a hot day, then you understand the concept of solar cooking, says Louise Meyer, founder of Solar Household Energy, Inc. (SHE), which promotes solar cooking all over the world. Simply put, a dark surface absorbs sunlight and turns those light waves into heat energy. That’s why your car’s dark leather seats burn up in the summertime, and why we can rely on the sun for fuel. “It’s a heat trap,” Meyer explains.

Meyer became interested in harnessing the sun for fuel when she lived in the Sahel in Northern Africa in the early 1990s. She arrived to promote a textile project the women could sell, but since the women there spent most of their days scavenging for firewood, they had little time to generate income.

When they were unable to carry enough wood on their heads, they would pull their daughters out of school and enlist them in the often dangerous task. Firewood was the fuel necessary for the basics of life—cooking, cleaning, bathing—but it consumed all of their time.

Meyer had her eureka moment while writing her final report. “That’s when I realized that fantastic work we’d done creating new products and designs and finding new markets was not going to improve the lives of village women until a solution could be found to the their daily search for firewood [to cook with]—not to forget the deforestation issue,” she says.

Meyer chats with me in the National Geographic courtyard, flanked by environmentalist Janet Murphy on one side and Nat Geo’s farmers’ market on the other. Both women wear sun hats—perhaps a bit optimistically for this overcast D.C. day. Two silver suns hang from Meyer’s ears, and another gold sun smiles up from her shirt—it’s clear she has a deep respect for the celestial power.

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Louise Meyer of SHE, Inc., stands next to her solar cooker while holding a fully-folded version. Photograph by Becky Harlan, National Geographic

Gesturing towards the solar cookers she has brought with her for her demonstration, Meyer says that half of the world’s population today lives similarly to the women of the Sahel, with no convenient source of cooking fuel—a situation she calls “fuel famine.” What’s more, this population is growing much faster than its more privileged counterpart. And, cooking with wood and other hard materials such as dung and coal is hazardous to health, killing about 4 million people a year.

While developing countries may lack reliable fuel, they do have one thing. “What they do have is a secret ingredient: the sun,” says Meyer. The world’s most impoverished people tend to be concentrated along the equator—also the places with the greatest access to sunlight. The only problem is, most don’t know how to use it.

But why should those of us who don’t need to worry about foraging for the day’s firewood turn to solar cooking? Meyer says she gets this kind of question a lot. “I’m a penny-pincher. I think it’s absolutely incredible that you can have this cooked food and you haven’t done anything! You haven’t heated up your kitchen; [fuel] is just tumbling down from the sky,” she says.

“And, it’s fun!” Murphy adds. 

Though Meyer’s original interest in solar cooking was borne out of her experience in Africa, she advocates for its use in the developed world. While solar cooking takes twice as long as conventional cooking and requires a continuous source of sunlight, you’ll never have to check on your food as it cooks–solar cooking never burns food. And in an era of the increasingly popular slow food movement, adding an hour or two to your cooking time may not be such a bad thing. “You can take time with things and honor the food,” Murphy says.

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Meyer reads a note she received from a student at a Washington, D.C. charter school. Photograph by Becky Harlan

If that doesn’t convince you, Meyer has an environmental appeal as well. When a person starts a fire, they release carbon dioxide into the air and consume fuel at an unsustainable rate, making cooking fires a major source of the world’s emissions. But cooking with the sun releases no steam and uses no fuel. “People ask, ‘Why should I care?’ [Solar cooking] is a personal contribution to stop climate change,” Meyer says. “It’s something you can do. We all are busy and overwhelmed, and we say, ‘But what can I do?’ Even in D.C., [solar cooking] is doable.” 

And the sun can be a powerful equalizer, she adds. “We are role models for the world. Everyone wants what we have. We have to do it—we have to show the world we are all the same. We all have sunlight. There’s no richer or poorer.”

Meyer believes the trend is catching on. Guiding me back to her demonstration table, she again points to the solar cookers on display. The same models that she uses abroad are also designed for individual families to use in their backyard. “It’s very compatible with someone who has a grill,” she says of one foldable version called the HotPot. Additionally, solar cookers have gained visibility in D.C. and nationally due to the work of world-renowned chef, José Andrés and his charity organization World Central Kitchen.

Solar cooking may be the future of sustainable cooking, but Meyer says we can’t rely on it alone. Solar ovens don’t cook when it’s cloudy, when it rains, or at night. “It has to have a back-up,” she warns, looking up at the grey sky. “We always say it’s like when you have a sailboat and there’s no wind. Well, obviously it’s not going to work! But then you have your paddles.” For Meyer, her paddles are the Fuel Efficient Stoves (FES) and heat retention devices (known as “hay baskets” or “magic boxes”), which she uses to complement solar cookers.

Before I leave the courtyard, Meyer pulls out a folder of letters and drawings she has received from local students whom she has taught about solar cooking. Looking through a group of letters from students at Washington, D.C.’s  E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, where she did a demonstration recently, her eyes well up behind her sunglasses. “We have to change our behavior. We can’t have blinders on,” she says. “Kids are much quicker to understand than adults.”

You can visit Louise Meyer’s solar cooking demonstration every Tuesday 11:00 a.m.-1:30 p.m. in the National Geographic courtyard (16th & M St. NW, Washington, D.C.) next to the farmers’ market.

In the U.S., basic solar cookers can be had for around $50, and the fancier ones can go up to $500.

Need a recipe to get started?

Solar Cooked Chicken Stew

Contributed by Louise Meyer, founder of Solar Household Energy, Inc. (SHE)

Whole chicken (or Cornish hen) with skin

½ apple, cut into small pieces

1 tablespoon chopped walnuts

2 carrots, peeled and cut into small pieces

2 small potatoes, peeled and cut into small pieces

Spices of choice

Add spices to chicken. Stuff chicken with apple and walnuts.

Place chicken in your solar cooker. Add carrots and potatoes. No need to add water or oil.

Cook for 2-3 hours, depending on weather conditions and the type of stove you have.