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  Right-sizing the solar cooker

Cooking with solar energy is a bewitching idea but most of the enthusiasts give up sooner rather than later because it can be messy: you must cook outdoors, chase the sun, can’t fry things, need a back-up for cloudy, rainy days… well it can all be just too much.

But is it a dead idea then? No, there is good news. A Swiss inventor Wolfgang Scheffler and Deepak Gadhia, an Indian in Gujarat who fabricates the former’s design are making a success of it by adopting a brand new marketing strategy: they have right-sized the cooker. When we think of right-sizing we invariably mean down-sizing, but to these two it means up-sizing.

It appears solar cooking can make sense where large installations are justified. Gadhia Solar that was set up to market Scheffler’s design found the first willing client in Brahmakumari’s, an only-in-India kind of organisation. Founded in 1937 by Dada Lekhraj, --a prosperous diamond merchant who gave away his considerable wealth to a trust managed entirely by women,-- Brahmakumaris teach ancient wisdoms of yoga, meditation and altruism. They can be pretty hard headed managers too: they decided to install Gadhia Solar’s high tech cooking system to cater to 1000 residents at their Mt.Abu centre. It was a success.

They soon commissioned what was then, the world’s largest solar cooking installation. Starting in April,2002 it cooks for 10,000 people at their centre in Taleti in Rajasthan. They saved 400 litres of fuel oil and of course several tonnes of carbon. Andhra Pradesh’s bouncy Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu was smitten by the Taleti installation. He wanted one for Tirumala, the most revered of Hindu pilgrim centres. The Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam [TTD] sprang Rs.1.1 crores for the world’s largest --at least, till the next!-- system that would save close to 450 litres of fuel per day. Another pilgrim centre --Sai Baba’s at Shirdi, Maharashtra-- has commissioned a 3000 meals system.

The dynamics of change in India is a curious pattern of the old adopting the new and making sense in the markets and the environment. Note that so far we have not mentioned a single recognisable corporate. Yet these solar initiatives will earn big money by trading the carbon emission they save [Carbon trading? What’s that.]

Gadhia Solar’s approach vaults over many of the objections: cooking is indoors, it is ‘industrial’ strength and pay back is immediate, visible and substantial. The high end design by Scheffler utilises large parabolic collectors that track the sun throughout the day and beam energy indoors. It’s not the clunky box cooker that you imagine when you think of solar cooking. [You can get an easy technical explanation here.]

There have been many more installations. A J.Krishnamurthy school at Rishi Valley, AP has one. Andhra Pradesh is now talking of ‘community’ solar kitchens which are high-end and may be shared by many homes. Hopefully, solar cooking may gain acceptability at the higher-end of the scale and gravitate to individual homes with friendlier designs.