The S.T.E.V.E.N. Foundation Newsletter 1996

Solar Technology and Energy for Vital Economic Needs

S.T.E.V.E.N. Foundation,
Ithaca, New York, USA
Tel/Fax (607) 257 7109 

S.T.E.V.E.N. Foundation, working for Solar Technology and Energy for Vital Economic Needs, was incorporated and granted non-profit status by the Internal Revenue Service (as a 501(c)(3) charity) early in 1986. In fact, the work of S.T.E.V.E.N. Foundation goes back six or seven years earlier, to 1979 when Prof. Jaroslav Vanek was visiting professor in the Hague, Netherlands. His students were mature professionals from developing countries: one especially, from Bangladesh, engaged in long conversations on the needs of his country, such as bricks for paving sturdy streets as were found in Holland. From their dialogue came a theoretical design for a brick-baking oven powered by the sun.

But how to collect the sun's energy to generate sufficient power? Simple experiments with an array of dime-store mirrors set into the sand dunes by the North Sea soon showed that creating sufficient heat was possible. And thus was born the work of S.T.E.V.E.N. Foundation, and its quest for the simple, inexpensive exploitation of solar energy to be used first of all by the peoples of the developing world.

Back at Cornell, Prof. Vanek explored various designs for a viable solar collector. At first he and helpers produced large convex "lentil" shaped collectors of mylar plastic in a wooden frame. Materials problems (difficulty of gluing widths of plastic, then inflating the lens) led to discarding this design; a large heliostat (4' square bank of mirrors) was also discarded as ungovernable. Parabolic trough solar collectors proved more workable and became the basis of solar-thermal and mechanical applications.

Cornell students became interested, and in 1980 Prof. Vanek first gave a course within his department (Economics) on the economically efficient use of solar energy, related also to its exploitation by cooperatives. That first enthusiastic student group formed its own coop, "Ensol," which published manuals and meterials, and continued meeting and working through the summer. The solar energy courses have continued, centering on both the S.T.E.V.E.N. technologies and on the formation of cooperative enterprises.

After the solar collector, the first technologies to be developed were water pumps of several different specifications, recognizing the urgent need for water pumping in the developing world; and a steam engine, the S.T.E.V.E.N. "work horse" which became the motor for a range of other mechanical applications: power for pumping, a wash machine, a mechanical saw, conceivably a plough, and so forth.

Other devices powered purely from the sun's heat were developed. >From a cooking pot heated by the parabolic collector, Prof. Vanek and colleagues (many students and family members have helped along the way) turned to improving the design for a "box oven" already well known to Boy Scouts and beekeepers. Like most of the technologies named above, the S.T.E.V.E.N. solar oven/cooker has passed through a number of generations of improvement to its present satisfactory performance. Refrigeration is the challenge currently at the top of the list: our refrigerator powered by two trough collectors has worked dependably as an ice-maker in field tests, now needs adaptation to run through the cycles of a refrigerator or freezer.

While the work of research and development goes on mainly in Ithaca, New York, the mission of S.T.E.V.E.N. Foundation to bring inexpensive solar technology to the needing world implies going out into the field, and we are happy to do so. Since 1984 when Jaroslav and son Josef Vanek went 'round the world with the technologies, stopping in Kenya (Nairobi), India (Calcutta), and the Philippines, missions have gone out to every continent save Australia. They include: in the Americas, Bolivia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Chile, Peru, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Mexico; in Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and a plan for Sudan unrealizable because of war; in Asia, India, Hong Kong and Malaysia. In the United States, S.T.E.V.E.N. has worked in the San Luis valley of Colorado and in Alabama. Given our small size and very limited financial resources, we are amazed to see all the places we've been!

As we take stock after 10 years incorporated and fifteen or more years of solar energy development, there are truly many blessings for which to be thankful. Jaroslav Vanek's basic designs, with help and support and often improvement from many others, have created devices, many of them very cheap and very simple, that could improve the quality of life for many people--in the case of water pumping even give life itself. In honesty we must confront the less satisfactory side of the accounting: despite many missions, contacts, transfers of technology, we have yet to see a S.T.E.V.E.N device truly put to work and become part of people's lives. (Are we mistaken in this assessment? If you are using our machines in an ongoing way, please let us know!) The desire to be of service in this way motivates our continuing work at S.T.E.V.E.N. Foundation


Members of the STEVEN Foundation were invited to present at a seminar organized by the office of the Haitian prime Minister, January 29-30, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Helped by the strong Caribbean sun, the ovens made an impressive showing, cooking rice, cake, and French bread, a staple in Haiti. Along with the participants at the seminar, foundation representatives laid the groundwork for a cooperative enterprise to construct and market the ovens in Haiti.

Steven Vanek, of the STEVEN Foundation, and Dr. Orlando Sotomayor, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, and longtime friend of the foundation arrived on the 23rd of January. Together with Pierrot Alexandre, a Haitian engineer and owner of a small furniture workshop, they were able to construct two solar ovens almost entirely with materials available in Haiti. One of the ovens is a small personal or family-sized unit; the other is a large bakery model which can bake ten loaves of bread at once.

They were joined on the 28th by Jaroslav and Wilda Vanek, who had been preparing for the seminar and testing a prototype large-scale oven in Florida. At the seminar, entitled "Solar Energy and Self Management", Steven Vanek presented the solar cookers and the solar icemaker which the foundation has been perfecting. Dr. Sotomayor and Dr. Vanek presented and then presided over a long discussion by seminar members on consolidating the cooperative movement in Haiti. They based the presentation on the model of the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain.

The ovens did especially well, set up on the grounds of the hotel where the seminar took place: Before the long loaves of French bread were put in to cook, the large oven reached a temperature of 430 degrees Fahrenheit! The bread was enjoyed by all with lunch on the first day of the seminar.

On the second day, the seminar was honored by a visit from the Prime Minister of Haiti. She addressed the participants, and S.T.E.V.E.N. Foundation representatives gave her a brief presentation on the ovens.

We hope that the ovens can help to provide an alternative to charcoal and firewood, used for cooking in the grand majority of Haitian households. These fuels are becoming more and more expensive due to the problems of deforestation in Haiti. Deforestation has had a number of devestating effects on the Haitian climate, agriculture, and economy.

The foundation has proposed a project to a branch of the Haitian government that deals with energy policy. The project intends to make steps towards alleviating these ecological and economic problems, by helping to start a cooperative to build and sell this low-cost cooking alternative in Haiti. Funding is currently being sought.

-Steven Vanek


Think it's difficult to do much with solar energy in a city apartment? Well if you have an unobstructed southern exposure with plenty of windows, you can do some solar cooking, as we discovered this year. Our apartment has a 10' (3.1m) wide south-facing alcove with 4 windows, so we built a platform in such a way that our S.T.E.V.E.N.-design solar oven could be rotated to face any of the windows, depending on the time of day. Since the late fall we have been able to cook rice, beans (they often need two days), enchiladas, and so on -- even with the short days, the sun low in the sky, and the clear transparent insulating plastic over the windows. Along the way, we've discovered that "jump-starting" the rice by bringing it to a boil on the stove and then simmering it in the cooker gives it a nice texture. In general, the food always comes out tasting like it has been gently steamed.

Next on our agenda is to try coating the reflective cone with the insides of potato chip and other wrappers which have a silver reflective coating, to test whether these materials can be used effectively in developing countries where no other type of reflector exists. Also, as the sun gets higher in the sky we may want to remove the platform and set the collector on the floor. The windows are tall enough (5 1/2' or 2.2 m.) that I believe even on the longest days of the year enough sun should reach the oven unobstructed for it to work well. If your abode has an indoor space which is similar to the one I've described, I recommend trying indoor solar cooking -- there's never a problem with wind.

-- Francis Vanek 

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