Simmer like a crock pot and bake like an oven, using the clean energy of sunlight.
While most of the attention on solar as a viable renewable energy resource these days may focus on using photovoltaic (PV) panels to generate clean electricity, it's not necessary for us to turn sunlight into electrons to put solar to work. Yes, installing a solar electric system is getting cheaper by the minute, and could be a great investment for a business or homeowner, but honestly, that's not for everybody, whether it's an issue of not owning the property, or not having enough space, or not being able to qualify for financing or leasing. Community solar, and the option of choosing renewable energy from local utilities, are becoming more widely available these days, and we're starting to see a shift in clean energy adoption, but we've still got a ways to go before renewable home electricity really gets off the ground.
However, there is another incredibly easy and affordable solar technology that can be put to work almost immediately, with no long-term financial commitments or construction involved, and although it's certainly not a new thing, by any means, it really ought to be considered a clean tech solution and used more widely. Solar thermal is the general term for using the sun's energy as heat, which can be put to work to supply domestic hot water, or used to heat a space, or to superheat water for steam production (which then drives turbines generating electricity), or a number of other purposes.
But perhaps the simplest way, and the most accessible way, to use it is to cook our food with it, using a solar oven, and Solavore's Sport model could be the gateway appliance to cleaner cooking. I recently got to spend some time using the Sport, which is a reboot of the once popular Solar Oven Society (SOS) model that went out of production in 2013, and found it to be easy to use, light and portable, and a convenient addition to home cooking. (I previously covered Solavore's 'buy one give one' Indiegogo campaign, which aimed to enable more solar ovens in the developing world to act as economic tools for change in those communities.)
The Sport, which is made entirely in the US and weighs just 9 pounds (4 kg), has a base made from injection-molded resin, with an inch of closed cell foam insulation between the outer and inner powder-coated liner, and can maintain high enough oven temperatures during brief cloudy periods to keep food cooking ("thirty minutes of bright sun out of every sixty will keep you cooking"). The top, or lid, also integrates a double-layer insulating system, although with an inch of dead air space instead of foam, and although it fits snugly on the oven, it also features metal clips for securing the lid (handy on windy days), as well as attachment points for the reflector system if needed.
The entire unit measures 17" x 27¼" x 12¼" (43cm x 69cm x 31cm), with the inner oven section measuring 9¼" x 17" (23.5cm x 43cm) and capable of fitting a cake pan, cookie sheet, or two 9-inch round cooking pots (included), and because the food doesn't have to be directly in the sun to be heated, pans with lids can be stacked inside the Sport (though height is limited due to the angled lid). An optional reflector system can be added to the lid if needed, such as on days with more cloud cover or during the shorter days of the year, which will help to concentrate more of the sun's rays into the oven. I found that the reflector wasn't needed, at least during this time of year where I live in the sunny southwest, and using it could potentially overheat the oven's lid.
Using the Sport is almost ridiculously simple. Preheat the oven for a short time (set it up in the sun empty), and when the temperature inside rises significantly (15 minutes or so, depending on conditions), then add your cooking pots or pans and secure the lid. Make sure the front of the Sport is facing directly at the sun, and set your timer for about twice as long as conventional oven cooking recipes call for (temperatures in the Sport generally range from 210º – 260º F (98.9º - 127º C), with a top end of about 300º F/149º C). During the cooking time, all that's necessary (other than to perhaps periodically monitor the temperature) is to re-adjust the front of the Sport to face directly at the sun (or alternatively, pre-rotate the Sport to face a position where it will receive the most direct sun in the next few hours).
"The Sport roasts meats, bakes fish and chicken, steams vegetables, bakes breads, cakes, and cookies. It even cooks rice, beans, lentils and pastas, with only solar energy. Using the natural moisture in meats, fish, and vegetables, the Sport cooks without additional water so all the natural vitamins and minerals are retained, giving food a wonderful rich flavor." - Solavore
In my experience, another beneficial aspect of using a solar oven at home, on top of the fact that the fuel is free and using it produces absolutely no emissions, is that it can help keep homes cooler during the warmer months by moving some of the cooking activities outside. Let's face it, if your home is nice and cool on summer evenings either because of great design (my adobe house is smart like that) or because of air conditioning, the last thing you'd want to do is to add a heat source by turning on the oven on a summer evening. Using a solar oven allows for great slow-cooked meals without having to heat up the kitchen, which enables a more comfortable home temperature and avoids extra home cooling costs.
As far as the drawbacks of the Sport, the only thing that really came up for me was the fact that this, like any solar accessory, isn't usable at all after dark and isn't very feasible during really cloudy weather, so if your local weather tends to be on the overcast or cloudy side of things, this won't be as useful as for others in sunnier locations. I did notice that the company's website says that during the winter, when the sun is at a lower angle, the oven can be placed on its back, which converts the Sport's 30 degree lid angle to a more effective 60 degree angle. This obviously reduces the interior floor space of the unit, so the included pans won't fit anymore, but may be a way of still getting some solar cooking in during the dead of winter.
The Sport sells for $229 USD, with free shipping within the continental US, and the optional aluminum reflectors can be added for $39.50 USD. And there's also a social good component to the company's mission, because every purchase of one of these clean cooking accessories helps to fund another Solavore Sport in a place where open fires are still the primary cooking technology.
[Disclosure: I received a Sport from Solavore for review purposes, and all errors, omissions, and opinions in this post are mine alone.]