Solar-powered cooker puts local clean energy start-up on the global map

What began as an effort to bring cleaner cooking to mainland villages has blossomed into a global business for a local start-up, writes Mark Sharp

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 6:36pm

The air in Beijing is notoriously polluted, but a PhD student studying climate change and air quality in western China discovered that the indoor pollution in villagers' homes was 10 times worse. The villagers were burning coal, wood and dung inside their homes while cooking on poorly designed stoves.

So Catlin Powers, a Harvard University student, along with Scot Frank, who was teaching science at Xining's Qinghai University, got their heads together to find a solution. Given the abundant sunlight in Qinghai province, the American duo figured that solar cookers would be the answer. They tried various models that were on the market but found they were either too fragile, unsafe, or not ergonomic. So they decided to develop their own.

That was the birth of One Earth Designs, a clean energy company with a mission to bring social and environmental innovations to communities around the world. The company set up a workshop in a Kwun Tong industrial building, where its team of engineers, scientists and industrial designers came up with the SolSource.

"The concept of solar cooking has been around for a long time, so we don't claim to have invented that," says Erica Young, chief design officer of One Earth Designs.

"What we have done is identify the major faults of existing solar cookers and solved them. It's portable, it's modular, it's highly reflective, it's very durable, it's lightweight, it solves a lot of the ergonomic issues and it's a lot safer to use."

The SolSource tips the scales at 18kg, compared with the average 95kg of earlier models. It is centred on a three-legged frame that can be revolved to follow the sun, and stabilised with a brake.

Power is generated directly from sunlight reflected from a parabola of proprietary, light plastic panels with a V-shaped gap for access by the user. The ring on which the pan sits, where the heat is focused, is waist height.

"The typical Qinghai woman using this device is probably elderly and a little short. If she's lifting a boiling pot or kettle with 4kg of water in it - if she's got to really reach - it's a very uncomfortable and unsafe position to be in.

"Also, if you're stir-frying or grilling, having this type of interface makes it much more comfortable to use," Young says.

It takes about 30 minutes to put the SolSource together for a first-time user, she adds.

The plastic panels are 90 per cent reflective and are durable enough to resist sandstorms, and even being stomped on by a yak, Young says, and will maintain reflectivity over time. Simulation showed that the panels will lose just 5 per cent of their reflectivity over six years. In bright sunlight, the SolSource can boil a litre of water in 10 minutes at sea level; it takes less time at a higher elevation.

The team's dedication to help the rural residents of Qinghai bore fruit when the government placed an order for 800 SolSource units last year.

"So we worked very hard for the whole of the second half of last year to deliver them," Young says. "That was the start. Once we did that, we started to get very positive feedback from the villagers there.

"In March, for example, they were using the product about two-thirds of the time, and this is a very low solar yield month for them. They were saving between 200 yuan (HK$252) and 250 yuan in that month, in terms of fuel costs. That's a lot of money to these guys."

Apart from Qinghai, One Earth Designs has a number of pilot programmes in northern and western regions of China where there is ample sunlight, such as Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu, Xinjiang and Mongolia. The company is also branching out globally, including in South Africa, India and Bolivia.

"That's because we think they are representative of those regions. So if we have success in those places, we imagine that it could spread regionally quite easily," Young says.

Earlier this year, the team joined InvestHK's Incu-Tech Programme for start-ups and moved to Hong Kong Science Park. This led to an invitation to take part in Inventions Geneva, where they walked away with the second grand prize.

Attendants at the fair were interested in the SolSource, not just as an innovation for the developing world. "They were like, 'I would use it in my backyard. Why can't I buy one?' That inspired us to launch the Kickstarter campaign," Young says.

In June, the company set out to raise US$43,000 through the US-based crowd-funding platform with the aim of filling a whole container with SolSource units for shipping to the US. "We were over 330 per cent of our goal by the time we finished. That's interesting because less that 1 per cent of Kickstarter projects earn more than US$100,000," Young says.

"What it showed us is that this type of technology is not only valuable in the developing world, but also in the developed world. And we really like the idea of bridging that gap."

This type of technology is not only valuable in the developing world, but also in the developed world. And we really like the idea of bridging that gap
Erica Young, One Earth designs

The SolSource has proven popular in the sunnier states, such as California, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. These states are also home to active communities of alternative energy fans.

The SolSource sold for US$249 on Kickstarter and otherwise retails for US$399 in the US. The cost in the developing world varies depending on quantity and what government subsidies are available to end users.

One Earth Designs is still refining the SolSource, which is manufactured on the mainland. "If you make the focus point less focused, then you can reduce the heat. You can also cover panels in order to reduce the heat, and we're working on a way to make it temperature adjustable in a more sophisticated way," Young says.

"We have a Serap [Small Entrepreneur Research Assistance Programme] grant with the Hong Kong government to do the temperature adjustable [feature]."

Young says the company has other plans afoot. The SolSource can be likened to a platform technology, she says, around which devices could be developed to produce home heating, a water purification system, solar thermal storage, or a cellphone charger.

Last month, the company took part in the BMW Foundation's 4th World Young Leaders Forum in Beijing to demonstrate the SolSource, treating the audience to appetisers while also charging their phones.

"We're focused around energy. I would call us a clean energy start-up because we envision the SolSource as a first step," Young says.

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