Category Archives: solar cooking

Solar Power: When, How and Where is it Right for You?

Passive solar home design is always a good idea, but if you’re not building or renovating what are the best choices for using solar energy at home?

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We are offering a pair of workshops on solar power both low-tech and high-tech.

Sunday, 26th March 2017

Whanganui, New Zealand

Workshop 1) Solar and Alternative Cooking for Fun or Emergency.

Emergency preparedness is just as important as day-to-day sustainable living in a volatile world where power outages are possible without warning. We will cover a variety of solar cookers, rocket stoves, and ‘the best solar dehydrator’ design. 4-5 pm. $10

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Workshop 2) Solar Electricity and Solar Hot Water: Making informed investment decisions.

There is a lot of hype and misinformation when it comes to domestic solar energy. The bottom line is that it may not be a sound economic investment for most NZ households. Find out if and how it may be right for you? 5-6 pm. $20

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Space is limited. Preregistration essential. theecoschool at gmail dot com.

Peace Estwing

Two New Flavours: Pre-silience and Post-silience

Volatility and resilience have entered the lexicon of politicians and economists over the last seven years. It is not uncommon to hear these words uttered by John Key, Tim Groser, Andrew Little, Russell Norman, or Metiria Turei. I have not heard Winston Peters specifically use these words, but I assume he has because he’ll say anything.

Gareth Morgan, Shamubeel Eaqub, and journalist Rod Oram appear to recognize market volatility and the importance of building resilient industries and communities. Parts of the recent regional growth study recognise these as well.

As a risk averse, conservative thinker myself, I spend a lot of time pondering volatility and resilience, and have come to divide what we commonly hear about the latter into two categories: pre-silience and post-silience.

Pre-silience is about being proactive and trying to avoid something bad from happening. When it is successful, no one notices. It’s like when Child Youth and Family does a fantastic job 99% of the time we never hear about it. It does not make the news. In other words, pre-silience is critically important but low profile.

During the renovation of our Castlecliff home, pre-silience was about adding lots and lots of insulation, installing curtains properly, and shifting windows around. This is not sexy stuff.

On our farm, pre-silience takes the form of building soil fertility, improving drainage and water storage, planning and planting windbreaks, and protecting vulnerable slopes. This is not sexy stuff.

Post-silience, if not sexy, is definitely “news worthy.” Post-silience, or lack thereof, pops up suddenly after volatility rears its head be it geological, climatic or economic. For example, the Christchurch earthquakes exposed weaknesses in some families’ and communities’ abilities to respond to the disaster. Poo is a great example. What do you do with it when the sewer lines are broken? Two of our friends in the permaculture movement made it their mission to build and promote composting toilets as a viable solution to post quake sanitary human waste management.

Post-silience was front and centre in our own community during the aftermath of the June floods as thousands of volunteers joined in the effort to support affected families and clean up silt from roads and sidewalks. People are great at rallying in a pinch, and post-silience is much more photogenic than pre-silience.

Economic volatility – especially in global dairy markets – has slammed farmers who are also suffering from climatic volatility. I was gob smacked recently when I heard talk of severe drought on the horizon for some of our farming regions. Too much water and too little water: this is the future of farming in Aotearoa: the land of the long white cloud. Indeed, scientist tell us we will be seeing more heavy grey clouds, cumulonimbus, and weeks on end without a cloud in the sky. How do you say that in te reo?

Well over half the work I do on our farm is in preparation of increased extreme weather events. The bad news is that all of this investment provides no financial return in the short run. The good news is that all of it protects financial returns (and minimises losses) in the long run. A thriving, pre-silient farm is my life insurance policy for my children.

But it is not all digging ditches, aerating soils, making compost, and planting trees. We also embrace low-energy technology that contributes to both pre- and post-silience. Two great examples are solar cooking and rocket stoves.

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Both are highly energy efficient and do not rely on mains power, gas, batteries or LPG.

We have been solar cooking for nearly a decade and rocket-stoving for half that. A power loss due to earthquake or windstorm would have little effect on our culinary abilities. We often do our Sunday roast on the solar cooker and recently our interns Patrick and Kelly brewed a Kiwi IPA on the rocket stove.

They will be demonstrating their skills from 11 to 1 today along the riverside near the Silver Ball sculpture as part of the 3rd Annual Whanganui Permaculture Weekend. If you are curious about permaculture design, there will be an introductory workshop at 1 today. Meet at the REBS Market stall. Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 11.18.37 am

The full programme can be viewed at the Permaculture Whanganui Facebook page or at the REBS stall. It was also published in full in last week’s River City Press.

Equinox: Honoring the Sun

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We’ve reached the autumnal equinox and there is probably not a person in the city that would not say what a glorious summer we have had. Plenty of sunshine, light winds, and, after an initial dry spell, enough rain to green up the pastures and the garden.

But, like it or not, summer will come to an end, and the equinox is a reminder that we are tipping toward winter with the hours of daylight becoming shorter than hours of darkness for the next six months. It is also a timely reminder of how valuable the sun is to life on earth, and what a difference its absence can make.

But like every great Achilles, Solar energy has its heal: it only works when the sun is shining on our side of the planet. I often use a solar cooker as a way to engage people in conversation about the potential for sunlight energy. Inevitably someone will ask, “What happens when the sun isn’t out.” Screen shot 2015-03-21 at 7.02.14 AM

Sadly, no one has yet to invent a lunar cooker, but there are many ways to store solar energy overnight and even for a number of cloudy days in a row. With solar cooking, the best place to store it is in your belly, but other solar storage systems include batteries, water and concrete.

Batteries are often used to store electricity generated by photovoltaic (PV) panels in places not served by mains power. Whether it is a yacht at sea or a bach in the wop wops, these situations are often called, “off-grid.” The “grid” refers to the network of power lines that serve the vast majority of us.

Obviously, off-grid housing is not vulnerable to mains power interruption, and is therefore valuable for emergency preparedness. Even though our rural home is served by mains power, I am designing a hybrid PV system that will heat our water most of the time but also have a small battery bank for emergency lighting, water pumping, radio and mobile phone charging.

Without meaning to offend anyone’s intelligence, a traditional solar hot water system stores sunlight energy in the form of heated water. The energy itself (heat) is stored inside of an insulated cylinder overnight. Depending on the amount of insulation around the cylinder and a household’s hot water use, the supply can last for three or four cloudy days. Solar hot water would also be a treat in the case of a prolonged mains power outage. Screen shot 2015-03-21 at 7.02.38 AM

Sunlight energy stored in an insulated concrete slab is called “thermal mass.” Like solar hot water, the heat is stored overnight and potentially for a number of cloudy days in a row. For any new home being built in New Zealand, passive solar design is an affordable approach to a high performance dwelling. Additionally – you guessed it – a passive solar home would serve its occupants very well during a mid-winter power failure if their only heating sources relied on electricity such as a heat pump or plug in heater.

Finally, don’t make the mistake of thinking that solar cooking is only a summertime endeavour. We have cooked through the last six New Zealand winters with great success. Memorably, during the week-long cold snap in August 2011 when we had snow flurries in Majestic Square, I managed to burn a pot of rice and a curry on the very same day. That is solar power. Screen shot 2015-03-21 at 7.02.46 AM

Peace, Estwing

Fresh, Local, Organic

Here are a pair of meals I submitted to the Green Urban Living Autumn Challenge. A description of each recipe can be found there. Below are pictures in a more-or-less step-by-step ‘visual recipe’ for each. Enjoy.

The first meal comes almost entirely from our property. (All except the fresh, local cream.) Vegetarian Chili, Fresh raspberries and peaches in cream.

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The second meal is more local and less directly from our land. Snapper and spuds in cream sauce, sauteed broccoli and corgette, and stewed peaches in raw milk.

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Peace, Estwing


Balance is something many of us struggle to maintain in our lives. With the profound unsustainability surrounding us, the task often appears that much more difficult. This project seeks to find the balance between eco and thrifty but finds – much of the time – that they are one and the same.
Lakota star quilt was a wedding gift.
The equinox is a great global reminder about balance, and a time for us to celebrate the sun.
Since our monthly Wanganui Permaculture Gathering (the third Wednesday) fell on the 21st, we decided to have an “alternative cooking” party with our solar cooker, rocket stove and pizza oven. Our friends brought a thermette (if you don’t know it, Google it) and a wood-buring BBQ.

Peace, Estwing

10 Watt Pasta

We ran a new workshop this weekend with excellent response from participants. The workshop – Solar and Energy-Efficient Cooking – is part of an ongoing workshop series by The ECO School.

We covered a number of different solar cooker designs and cooking techniques during the first half of the workshop. But for those who have not yet made their own cooker, or for cloudy days, we introduced a number of other energy-efficient cooking techniques. Central to many of those techniques is the straw box.

Our straw box happens to be full of towels, not straw. But we still call it a straw box. The key to a good straw box in insulation on all 6 sides.

A great example of using a straw box – not to mention an excellent energy-saving cooking technique – is what we call “10 watt pasta.” This cooking technique uses a small fraction of the electricity of boiling pasta for 10 minutes on a hob (stovetop). Here’s how to make it.

1) Boil a jug. Because the heating element is inside of the container, heat transfer is more efficient than heating a kettle or sauce pan of water on the stovetop (hob). We fill the jug with our solar hot water which comes from the tap at a high temperature using no electricity.

2) Pour over pasta until covered and place in the straw box.

3) Cover the straw box and wait 20 – 25 minutes. Stir once at 10 to 12 minutes. For al dente pasta, remove at 15 minutes and stir at 8 to 10 minutes.

The pasta comes out perfectly cooked as long as you drain the water at the prescribed times. Use the intervening 25 minutes to make a healthy sauce from fresh veggies and herbs from your garden.

Bon apetito! Estwing