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Using Solar To Make Tortillas Is No Waste

CAPTION | Photo: 60 in 3/Flickr/Creative Commons License

We here at ReWire are big fans of FierceEnergy's reporter Barbara Vergetis Lundin, who covers renewable electricity markets for that fine trade publication. But Lundin badly missed the point in a short piece posted Tuesday on FierceEnergy's site, in which she responds to a short article in another publication by slamming Mexico's renewable energy policy:

Mexico has the most abundant sunshine and potential for solar power than almost any country in the world. The Sonora Desert in Northern Mexico provides potentially endless opportunities, but instead of capitalizing on that potential to supply electricity to residents, Mexico is using solar to make tortillas.
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Lundin wrote her piece in response to an actually rather nifty short posted last month by Clean Technica's Jake Richardson about Gregor Schrapers, a German migrant to Central Mexico. Schrapers is a solar engineer who's working to popularize solar cooking in his adopted town north of Mexico City. As seen in this video by Schrapers' firm Trinysol, the technology he's building can be readily adapted to industrial food processing:

Richardson's piece focused -- so to speak -- on Schrapers' tortilla ovens, which can reach a temperature of 1,800° with no fuel needed other than sunlight. This offers the possibility of displacing or reducing the use of older, gas-fired ovens.

In the northern deserts that Lundin cites as her preferred locale for solar development, such ovens become even more promising. Villagers in rural northern Mexican towns use a significant amount of gathered wood for cooking and heating fuel, leading to near-deforestation in some places. Effective solar thermal technology could ease the burden on the bosques, while making life a bit easier for the people that live nearby.

And despite the apparent implication in Lundin's post, making tortillas is no trivial task. Tortillas are the staff of life in Mexico. In fact, for Mexico's poorest people, a daily diet consists of not a whole lot else. Coming up with a way to provide that staff of life without fossil fuels is no small accomplishment.

Besides, what would Lundin advocate instead? Putting utility-scale solar electric generating capacity in the desert, then transmitting that power over a thousand miles so that Schrapers could plug in electric ovens? She might as well tell people in Ventura that they're wasting solar energy by hanging their clothes out to dry rather than running electric dryers off solar thermal electricity from the Mojave Desert.

And of course, Schrapers' company doesn't constitute the whole of the Mexican renewable energy sphere. There are utility-scale solar projects being built in Mexico. But the solar-powered world that's coming will involve a whole lot more than just utility-scale business as usual. Some of the solar innovations we'll most take for granted in 30 years will be the small-scale, creative applications people like Schrapers are developing.

The sun shines on every neighborhood, and Lundin misses the point badly by forgetting that in her weird sidelong rant.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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