Sun-Sourced Stove Cuts Pollution in Chinese Himalayas

Posted by Sarah Stankorb

Beijing’s blackout smog has been making global headlines, but in China, more than half a million people die each year due to indoor air pollution—often the result of wood-burning cookstoves. Felling trees for cooking has led to rampant deforestation and a way of life where scarcity of fuel, expense of coal and the unreliability of biofuel has left villagers fearful about their future options for cooking food and heating their homes.

For nomadic and agricultural communities in the Himalayan plateau, those difficult health and economic realities have been made easier with an engineering marvel that steals an idea from every kid who’s ever tried to start a fire with a mirror or magnifying glass. The SolSource, one product in a line of solar energy technologies developed by One Earth Designs, is a light-weight, portable cookstove that features five reflector panels that look something akin to a satellite dish with a pie piece-shaped sliver missing. 

Supported by a tripod frame, the dish can be turned 360 degrees and titled so the sun hits every panel. Rather than depending upon photovoltaic technology, the SolSource collects and concentrates light at a middling point in the dish, over which users can place a stove pot. The cook stands, safe from potential burns and bright light, in the cut-out, pie-piece shaped area. No electricity is used. As John B. Lindquist, One Earth Designs’ market development manager, explains it, “It’s just like a really powerful magnifying glass.”

In a pilot program last year, the Chinese government bought and distributed 800 SolSource S1 model cookstoves to nomadic villagers in the province of Qinghai, and is evaluating the impact of the stove on people’s lives. Though impact data is still being collected, early responses show dramatic changes in daily life. Women no longer have to spend hours each day collecting wood, coal, and dung to fuel their fires. Some are saving money. Others are spared law-breaking to find fuel. As Lindquist notes “in many cases they are actually having to steal the wood… [because] you can get fined for chopping down wood in many areas.”

Obviously, cooking on SolSource must happen outside, and for approximately 220 days each year, it's sunny enough in the Himalayan region to support the stove’s use. Even in cloud or fog cover, so long as you can see the outline of the sun, the stove works—though it may take a few extra minutes to boil water. To help collect and store energy for sunless days or indoor use, One Earth Designs, the brainchild of co-founders Scot Frank and Catlin Powers, is developing a new line of products to be used in tandem with the SolSource, including a generator to collect and store energy for running heaters or charging cell phones. 

The SolSource’s light weight and high-design spin on the old magnifying glass trick make it a draw for campers and barbequers in the developed world as well. (In mid-March, One Earth Designs will be launching a Kickstarter campaign for those interested in using the SolSource recreationally.) But the company’s main interest still rests in helping get their product into the hands of those whose lives quite literally might depend upon it. For that, and at a discounted price by volume, One Earth Designs works in conjunction with governments and NGOs who have the ability to distribute the stoves widely. For a company that designs and builds its products alongside members of the communities it serves, the first goal is finding ways to improve those lives.

This month, challenge a neighbor to GOOD's energy smackdown. Find a neighbor with a household of roughly the same square footage and see who can trim their power bill the most. Throughout February, we'll share ideas and resources for shrinking your household carbon footprint, so join the conversation at good.is/energy.