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Now They're Cooking: SolSource Harnesses the Himalayan Sun

By John Haffner, Scot Frank, Catlin Powers | June 16, 2014

CREDIT: One Earth Designs.

In the summer of 2007, Catlin Powers, while still a sophomore at Wellesley College, traveled to the remote Qinqhai province of northwest China to study climate change. One day she was invited into the modest home of a local family. For simplicity, she described her climate change work to them as research into "outdoor air pollution." The family laughed, and was puzzled. "The sky outside is blue," they said. "But inside our homes there is a lot of pollution coming from the stove." They wondered why someone would study outdoor air pollution when there was so much more indoors.

Fair question, Catlin thought. She took out her equipment to measure the indoor air quality and the result was shocking. The level of PM2.5 (small, often carcinogenic particulate matter that burrows deep into the lungs) inside the family's home was 10 times more than the average in Beijing, one of the world's most polluted cities. For carbon monoxide, the level was "off the charts." As her further research revealed, "people were being routinely exposed to levels that they would be hospitalized for if they were in the United States."

Shocked, Catlin studied up on the issue. In China, more than 500,000 people die every year from "illnesses related to stove pollution exposure," and the global number is about 4 million. More than half of those who die are children under five; indoor air pollution is one of the biggest killers of children under five worldwide. Catlin decided to switch focus from climate change to this huge health problem. She started thinking about how to apply her "love for chemistry" to possible solutions.

That same summer, Catlin heard about Scot Frank, an engineering student from MIT who was teaching engineering at one of the local Chinese universities. One of Scot's students told Catlin that Scot was different than most foreigners, that he was having an exciting impact in some of the local communities. The student said: "He's going out to all the villages of his students, and helping villagers on the engineering projects that they care about. That's so rare!"

Impressed and curious, Catlin went and knocked on Scot's door. Scot had first come to China in 2005. He was supposed to teach a course in Beijing, but it got canceled. With his summer free, and curiosity calling him to the Silk Road, Scot made his way to Western China. When he arrived in Qinghai, he discovered that students from rural areas had no access to science and engineering courses, so he began offering free workshops.

Over time, his students invited him to their homes—some of them eight hours away from the nearest city. He journeyed with them to their villages across an astonishing diversity of terrain, from alpine to grasslands to desert. Inspired by their gratitude and friendship, he soon added other workshops to the mix: woodworking, metal bending, video editing, and even cultural preservation.

By the end of that first summer, Scot had an "intuition" that he was exactly where he was supposed to be. As he recalls: "I had a feeling in my gut that for some reason I should be here, that there was something bigger for me to do." When he returned to MIT, his academic advisor told him to plan for Wall Street or Silicon Valley. But Scot had a different idea, returning repeatedly to Western China over the course of his degree, even taking a year off from MIT for the remoteness of Himalayan China and India.

Scot Frank. CREDIT: One Earth Designs.

Kindred Spirits Join Forces

When Catlin knocked on Scot's door in 2007, they hit it off immediately and soon began working together. They launched initiatives in environmental education, microloans, water quality testing, fuel scarcity, and indoor air pollution. Over time, and based on community feedback, it became clear that household air pollution and fuel scarcity were the priority issues. Two years later, they established a nonprofit foundation, and three years after meeting they established a for-profit company as well.

Fuel scarcity, they found, was not only about limited access to biomass and the absence or costliness of alternatives. It also had a gender component. Many rural schools require families to send fuel for every child. Often girls stay at home and collect fuel so their brothers get the chance to study. Says Catlin: "Some of the girls say to me: 'When do we get our turn?'"

Cookstoves stood at the intersection of all these issues—air pollution, fuel scarcity, gender empowerment, and education. A local leader took Catlin and Scot aside to tell them about his idea for a solution he thought would work. Himalayan consumers, it turned out, were interested not only in the workings of the stove, but also in how it reflected their status in the community. The comment was a revelation. "We don't like to admit it," says Catlin, "but brand perception is a factor all across the world, even in rural and transitional communities."

Scot and Catlin realized that if they were to succeed with a new stove design, it would need to be not only good for the communities and the planet, but also have some cachet.

Catlin Powers (left). CREDIT: One Earth Designs.

Dogs, Horses, and Motorcycles

After seeing that commercially available solar cookers would not meet the local needs, Catlin and Scot decided they would work with the local communities to develop an effective solar cooker that could withstand the harsh environment of the Himalayan Plateau. But this was much easier said than done.

To design a solar cooker for the Himalayan region, it would have to meet a long list of challenging requirements. It had to be lightweight and portable: Local women showed them scars on their backs from heavy solar cookers they had carried. It had to be safe. It had to be durable. It had to work in extremely cold temperatures. It had to withstand high winds. It had to cook food that actually tasted good. And it had to durable enough to withstand bumps from local animals: "It had to be yak tough," as Scot joked.

In the face of such a tall order, others might have called it a day. But Catlin and Scot were undeterred. They launched into a "very long process" of designing, building, and field testing a prototype—and then repeating this cycle, again and again, for several years.

The rural Himalayas are a place of uncommon beauty and cherished friendships, to be sure, but also a place of extremes and rugged challenges. Catlin, for instance, had to overcome a fear of horses. Once, while riding to someone's home, her horse stopped suddenly, but she kept going right over the top. "It was a grand entrance," recalls Catlin, laughing, "and the talk of the village for quite some time."

Another time, in the middle of a very cold winter, two motorcycles set off to another village, with Catlin on the back of one of them. They got to a point where a series of small waterfalls had frozen over completely. "There was no pathway on either side, just cliffs." Before she knew it, her companions were driving the motorcycles right up the frozen rapids. They were "skidding and swerving," and "sometimes the engines didn't seem like they were strong enough." Catlin admits: "I was scared out of my wits."

Scot, too, had his share of unsolicited adrenaline rushes. While walking along a river with Catlin and another colleague, Scot had fallen behind and needed to answer nature's call. They had all noticed a pack of huge, ferocious mastiffs on the other side of the river, but the water seemed to serve as a natural divide and buffer. "All of a sudden," says Catlin, "we heard this funny noise. The whole pack had crossed the river and was running full speed at Scot!" Scot managed to pull up his pants, run uphill, and scramble over a fence. "The dogs could have cleared that fence easily," she recalls, "but they were more interested in re-marking their territory. So, that's what saved him in the end."

Enter the Light

With grit, persistence, and good humor, and many design iterations at MIT and elsewhere, Catlin, Scot, and their team eventually achieved major breakthroughs in design and materials. By 2012 they had designed "a new kind of reflector" that could work in extremely cold temperatures, and even during sandstorms. They gave their solar technology an intuitive name, SolSource, and called the brand One Earth Designs. In late 2012, they launched the product in China. Each cooker sells in China for around $210 plus shipping, and in the first year they sold a few thousand units, mostly in Qinghai and neighboring areas.

SolSource is a portable parabolic solar concentrator that requires no cleanup. It can ignite wood within seconds, and can grill, steam, bake, boil, fry, and barbecue food. It can cook a steak at "searing temperature" (287 degrees Celsius) in 6–7 minutes.

Customers are delighted. As one proclaimed, "It's a solar oven on steroids." A family from Jianzha, a county in Qinghai, is saving about $32–64 in fuel costs each month. Previously, they had difficulty affording food and heating the house; with SolSource, they say, "We don't face these problems anymore."

Another customer shared that her older daughters had had to "collect fuel instead of going to school," but with SolSource, she is now able to educate her youngest daughter.

SolSource in use. CREDIT: One Earth Designs.

Outside China, too, word of the technology has traveled fast, with an ever growing list of accolades. In 2010, the team won the Dutch Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. They received a Gold Medal and the "Prix Du Public" at the 41st International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva in April 2013. And in March 2014, Prince Albert II of Monaco gave SolSource an innovation award for excellence in the field of environmental technology commercialization.

By late 2013, Catlin, Scot and their team realized SolSource has great market potential not just in the Himalayas, but all over the world. But they knew the biggest challenge in reaching customers would be shipping, so they launched a Kickstarter campaign to bundle units and decrease costs. They set a sales target of $46,000 and within weeks they had sold $146,000 worth of product.

Why did their campaign do so well? Simply, customers in developed economies have been surprised by the product's cooking speed and enjoyable user experience. People have even been uploading Google Glass videos of cooking steak or salmon on SolSource in the snow. Also, they like its health and environmental benefits. SolSource and its associated cookware are designed with non-toxic coatings and produce 600 times less carbon dioxide during manufacture compared with solar photovoltaic panels. And it avoids one of charcoal's unwelcome side effects: carcinogenic particles added to the meal.

As of April 2014, they have reached customers in 18 countries including South Africa, Australia, and the United States. With growing markets both inside and outside China, One Earth is experimenting with a two-tiered business model. "We're testing out a pretty interesting model here," says Catlin, "trying to serve all of our different customers equally." In Himalayan China, they sell the product at cost. In developed markets, they sell with a margin, at a price competitive with other types of grills and barbeques, and some of this revenue is reinvested back into their growth plans in emerging economies.

They also have compelling metrics on the health and environmental benefits of their first sales in 2013 in China:

Nor should the potential impact in developed economies be discounted—especially if SolSource can displace a significant number of traditional grills. In the United States, alone, barbecues on the Fourth of July generate more carbon emissions in one day than some African countries generate from their entire economies in one year.

With tangible environmental impacts and a two-tiered model to serve both developed and developing economies, SolSource recently also became certified as the first B Corporation in China. Nevertheless, says Scot, they do not try to identify as a "social enterprise" or a "sustainable company," or fret about how well they match up to those labels. "We prefer to try to have a good business that has impact and provides value to people; that provides prosperity and enriches the planet," said Scot.

Just Getting Warmed Up

One Earth Designs has struck a chord in the global imagination, and their achievement offers some valuable reminders and lessons. First, problems require action. This may sound obvious, but in energy and environmental circles, there is no shortage of conferences and roundtables where people just talk about problems. By contrast, they identified a pressing problem, and stuck at it until they achieved results.

Second, they are proving the skeptics wrong about solar. "There is a lot of opportunity for solar energy that's not currently being tapped, and most people aren't looking at emerging markets—particularly in rural communities," said Scot.

Third, they operate under the assumption that community problems can only be solved by working with those communities. Catlin switched focus from climate change to indoor air pollution because she listened. And multiple product iterations similarly depended on taking community feedback very seriously. Listening to the community is not an idea to which they pay lip service—it is at the heart of their enterprise.

Finally, bottom-up innovations can be just as important as top-down innovations. To the cynic, a solution like SolSource is still too small to make a meaningful difference in the global context. But their technology is already changing and saving lives, and moving into global markets much faster than anyone had anticipated.

Also—and here is a crucial point—an innovation which may appear only modest in application at first may also turn out to have other applications, or give rise in turn to further innovations. As Catlin said during a talk in Barcelona: "Cooking with the SolSource is just the beginning. This technology harnesses a tremendous amount of energy that can be used for a wide range of other household energy needs." One Earth has research collaborations underway with the Chinese, Hong Kong, and U.S. governments, with the exciting goal of turning SolSource into a household energy plant—one that can heat homes, power appliances, and even purify water.

In a few short years, from being thrown off horses and chased by dogs, these two young entrepreneurs have reminded us that being "smart with a heart" can reap big global dividends. Time will tell whether SolSource turns out to be a "flash in the pan"—however worthwhile a contribution it remains in its own right—or whether they really manage to extend its use into other ambitious applications as envisioned.

But for now, they are unfazed by all the dystopian talk of China's environmental crisis, and relentlessly optimistic in the face of dire predictions for the planet. Says Scot: "I think there is an incredible amount of hope and opportunity. Eventually, we will have success in addressing these great challenges around climate change and energy."

Cooking with solar. CREDIT: One Earth Designs.

Read More: Business, Culture, Development, Education, Energy, Environment, Gender, Health, Innovation, Poverty, Science, Sustainability, Technology, China

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