Thursday, April 23, 2015

a place in the sun

La sangre sin fuego hierve. Blood boils without fire
- Mexican Proverb

I've spent a little bit of time in Mexico recently. Actually, it's been quite a bit of time. Yet it's never enough. There are so many things I love about Mexico: the food, the ocean, the people. But I can't forget about the sun. In Mexico, the sun is an entity in and of itself. It calls the shots; when we wake up, when we go to sleep, how we spend our days. It has been both lovely for me as well as painful. My first trip to Mexico I burned my feet being out in the sun too long, and they swelled up into giant tomatoes. I learned my lesson.

I try to never miss a sunset when 
I'm on the Gulf Coast of Mexico

The sun in Mexico is almost always shining. Even when it rains, a few minutes later the sun inevitably comes out. It's a sunny place. The sun shines down upon us, a constant reminder of the heat we must endure every day in this endlessly tropical climate. So it's not really surprising what I'm going to talk about next. The energy of the sun can only lead us to one possible conclusion. That's right, I'm going to talk about solar energy. I recently learned an important lesson about using the sun's energy.

I must admit that I'm still learning about solar energy. And a lot of what I do know I learned very recently, both in a classroom as well as in practice. I have lived in a hot, tropical, sunny climate. I have left a clear bottle of water out in the sun. Heck, I've even left one in my car on a sunny day. How hot was the water? Hot enough to burn. And hot enough to cook.

This is what the local people I visited in Mexico already knew; the sun can cook things (other than just their skin). Yet, they weren't, to the best of my knowledge, really utilizing the sun's power for cooking. I needed to find out why. There had to be a reason (or reasons). But before I could find out what people knew and didn't know about the sun, what the locals were or weren't using the sun for and why (or why not), I was beat to the punch. Because a group of generous souls set up solar cookers for these same villages where I spend much of my Mexico time. 

A new solar box cooker

Don Alejandro shows off a new & highly 
efficient wood burning stove.

What have I learned since these solar cookers were introduced to the villages? The sun is hot. And everywhere. And free. Except that it's not free; not exactly anyway. There are so many costs, some I saw coming, but some of which were totally unforeseen. I have to admit I was surprised how enthusiastic everyone was when they saw a demonstration of the solar cookers. There are a few types (solar oven, solar stove, efficient wood burning stove) and they're all impressive. However, they are all small. Too small. And expensive. Too expensive.

They cook one pot of beans. Which isn't enough. We know it's not. Because we asked. And because I thought about it. I can't remember the last time I used one pot to cook a meal for a group of people. Especially one involving rice, beans, meat and tortillas. 

They are cost prohibitive. This we also know. How expensive are they? Well, using the cheapest materials we could find, they are still too expensive. Honestly, anything over thirty dollars is out of the locals' price range.

However, seeing the demand for the solar cookers, I saw an opportunity from my capitalistic American point of view. They just needed to set up a stove factory. I was certain the completed stoves would sell like hot cakes. As long as we could get the cost down. So we would have to be creative. We would have to use alternative, and thus cheaper, materials and buy in bulk. We would have to design an equally efficient stove using new designs. And then we would have to get the stoves to actually work. But I knew it was a good idea. Build the stoves, I thought, and they will come.

I suggested to a few local friends that they might want to be the ones to capitalize on this untapped high demand marketplace. My friends looked at my like I was out of my head (more-so than normal, as I tend to offer up pretty nutty ideas to anyone who will listen). They couldn't imagine how to make the ovens more cheaply. But I pushed them on this point. I knew it would be possible. I just didn't exactly know how.

The original design for the solar box cooker (an oven)

The materials and ingenuity question weren't actually the biggest barriers my friends needed to overcome. They first needed start-up funds; they didn't have the necessary amount of cold hard cash. So I started to channel my inner venture capitalist. We would simply search for some start-up funding. It would be easy. We knew people in Merida. They would have money. After all, we were planning to set up a small solar cooker making operation, not a high tech computer company. How hard could it be?

The answer is hard. But also easy. Because i
t turns out it is possible to cut down the cost of the cookers by using alternative materials and increasing quantity. So we don't need a lot of funds. Just a few supportive friends with a little bit of money. Which we found we have. In spades. And just how will we design less expensive stoves? Turns out we have friends who know how to do this as well. We are rich in resources. 

I have high hopes we'll be able to drop the cost of the ovens significantly. But we still have miles to go before they can become affordable to the local population. But I know it will happen. We will figure it out. It is possible. Nada hay nuevo debajo del sol. There is nothing new under the sun.

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