Here's how "solar concentrators" could provide renewable cooking technologies for the developing world

Let's get cooking: the technology at work. Image:

The sun is pretty damn important, if only because it stops us from not existing. It presides over the solar system; it accounts for 99.8 per cent of its mass; and, for want of a better word, it produces a shit-ton of energy.

The amount of solar energy the sun produces in a single second is equivalent to about 1 trillion one megaton bombs. Around 173,000 terawatts of solar energy are striking the Earth at any given moment. Yet, in 2010, the global capacity of solar energy production stood at just 0.04 terawatts. That seems a bit of a waste – so why aren’t we using more of it?

That’s the question being asked by Solar Fire Concentration Limited (SFCO), a social enterprise based in Finland. It’s a highly international team, whose members range from the designer of an open source tractor, to an engineer visiting energy companies and projects around the world, to the grandson of a solar pioneer. And its rather optimistic mission is to eradicate energy poverty, by making solar thermal energy much more accessible to many people around the world.

To achieve this, it’s set up a crowd funding campaign called “Free the Sun”, which aims to raise at least $60,000 towards the production and free distribution of construction guides for solar technologies. The success of the campaign will allow small scale entrepreneurs, innovators and skilled workers around the world to base their businesses on solar energy.

When people think of using the sun as an energy source they tend to think of solar panels – a clean, cost-effective way to generate renewable energy. This may be a great investment for those who can afford it – but for many people, not only are solar panels too expensive to attain, and too complex to DIY; the energy it generates is in the form of electricity, which is less needed than heat energy.

So SFCO, is instead focusing on “solar concentrators”: a technology which uses mirrors or lenses to concentrate on a large area of sunlight, and direct it towards a specific area (a cooker, for example). Thus, they covert the sun’s energy directly into heat instead of electricity.

On SFCO’s FAQ page the group says that there are a few differences between most solar concentrators and their own model. Instead of solar panels, they use ordinary mirrors – much like the ones stuck to your wardrobe. Their solar concentrators are flexible, durable and simple to build – it doesn’t need computations and it doesn’t need to be bent into mirror-symmetrical curves. SFCO also says they are more scalable: once the core technique is mastered, it is easy to modify the designed to suit local needs.

Here’s a video explaining how the technology works:

With enough funding, GoSol hopes to get this technology in the hands of as many people as possible. The group argues that energy independence and economic and politic independence go hand in hand.

Although this project isn’t committed to reducing greenhouse emissions directly, it would have a positive knock-on effect on the planet. It could also bring energy to the parts of the world those most in need of it, like India, where 70 per cent of the population is rural.

Oh, and the perk of getting involved in this campaign is getting a sample of solar roasted chocolate, and possibly your very own solar concentrator.

The crowd funding campaign launched on the 15 April and will run until the end of May. You can donate here.


Joe Anderson: Why I resigned from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership

Liverpool Lime Street station, 2008. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Liverpool has a few choice words for Chris Grayling.

I resigned from the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership this week. I just didn’t see the point of continuing when it is now crystal clear the government isn’t committed to delivering the step-change in rail investment in the North that we so desperately need. Without it, the Northern Powerhouse will remain a pipedream.

Local government leaders like me have been left standing at the altar for the past three years. The research is done. The case has been made. Time and again we’ve been told to be patient – the money is coming.

Well, we’ve waited long enough.

The only thing left is for the transport secretary to come up with the cash. I’m not holding my breath, so I’m getting on with my day job.

There’s a broader point here. Rail policy has been like a roller-coaster in recent years. It soars and loops, twisting and turning, without a clear, committed trajectory. There is no consistency – or fairness. When London makes the case for Crossrail, it’s green-lit. When we make the same case for HS3 – linking the key Northern cities – we are left in Whitehall limbo.

Just look at the last week. First we had the protracted resignation of Sir Terry Morgan as Chairman of HS2 Ltd. Just when we need to see firm leadership and focus we have instead been offered confusion and division. His successor, Allan Cooke, said that HS2 Ltd is “working to deliver” services from London to Birmingham – the first phase of the line – from 2026, “in line with the targeted delivery date”. (“In line?”)

Just when HS2 finally looked like a done deal, we have another change at the top and promises about delivery are sounding vaguer. Rumours of delays and cost over-runs abound.

Some would like to see the case for HS2 lose out to HS3, the cross-Pennine east-west line. This is a bit like asking which part of a train is more important: its engine, or its wheels. We need both HS2 and HS3. We are currently left trying to build the fourth industrial revolution on infrastructure from the first.

If we are ever to equip our country with the ability to meet rising customer and freight demand, improve connectivity between our major conurbations and deliver the vision of the Northern Powerhouse, then we need the key infrastructure in place to do that.

There are no shortcuts. Ministers clearly believe there are. The second piece of disappointing news is that officials at the Department for Transport have already confirmed to the freight industry that any HS3 line will not be electrified, the Yorkshire Post reports.

This is a classic false economy. The renaissance of the Liverpool Dockside – now called Superport – is undergoing a £1bn investment, enabling it to service 95 per cent  of the world’s largest container ships, opening up faster supply chain transit for at least 50 per cent  of the existing UK container market. Why squander this immense opportunity with a cut-price rail system?

Without the proper infrastructure, the North of England will never fulfil its potential, leaving our economy lop-sided and under-utilised for another generation. This is not provincial jealousy. Building a rail network that’s fit for purpose for both passenger and freight will remove millions of car journeys from the road and make our national economy more productive. It will also be cleaner, cheaper and more reliable. Our European neighbours have long understood the catalytic effect of proper connectivity between cities.

Similarly, linking together towns and key cities across the North of England is a massive prize that will boost growth, create jobs and provide a counterweight to Greater London, easing pressures on the capital and building resilience into our national economy.

To realise this vision, we need the finance and political commitment. Confirmation that the government is pushing ahead with HS3 – as well as HS2 – is now sorely needed.

With Brexit looming and all the uncertainly it brings in its wake, it is even more pressing to have clarity around long-term investment decisions about our critical infrastructure. Given the investment, the North will seize the chance.

But until ministers are serious, I have a city to run.

Joe Anderson is the elected Labour mayor of Liverpool.