WHEN people talk about "going solar", we usually think of solar hot water and solar (PV) electricity systems.
There are also a growing number of people using direct solar radiation to cook outdoors.
Solar cooking involves concentrating sunlight to create heat and essentially comprises two main methods: using parabolic solar cookers, where a dish with a reflective surface focuses the sun's heat to a central point (making them well-suited for cooking foods at high temperature, such as frying, boiling and grilling); or using solar ovens, where solar radiation is trapped inside a well-insulated box (creating an ideal environment for slow-cooking, baking and dehydrating).
Fans of solar cooking cite a range of benefits, including reduced electricity or gas bills, greenhouse gas savings, succulent food (solar ovens lock in moisture), and reducing heat by avoiding indoor oven use.
While meals take longer to prepare than in their conventional counterparts, solar ovens require less hands-on time checking on food during cooking - it is difficult to burn food in them - and meals can be left to cook during the day without fear of burning the house down.
Many types of solar cookers can also be packed up and taken on camping trips.
Because solar cooking involves converting sunlight into heat, it can be performed year-round providing there is sunshine.
It is less successful during cloudy weather and in extended periods of rain, although some of the higher quality solar ovens can still be used for residual-heat cooking, where food is brought up to temperature on a conventional stovetop and placed into the solar oven to finish cooking.
But what about the cost?
It is possible to make your own solar cooker using inexpensive materials, with a number of step-by-step instructions available online.
Ready-made solar cookers range from cheap camping ovens to sophisticated models priced around $500.
Well-known top-end models include the Portuguese-made SunCook and the US-made Global Sun Oven and SOS Sport; no solar ovens are made in Australia.
Calculating payback is complicated depending on tariffs, time of use and other factors difficult to measure, and while appliances are rated at their maximum capacity, ovens are rarely operated at their highest temperature setting.
However, it is reasonable to expect that an electric oven set at a moderate temperature of 180 degrees might draw at least one kilowatt per hour; the bulk of this power use will occur as the oven is heating up.
If you are on a time-of-use tariff and use your oven for an hour on weekdays between the peak pricing period of 2pm to 8pm, you could expect to pay about $2.50 a week, making the payback on a $500 solar oven about four years.
If you are on a general supply (flat-rate) tariff, the payback might take about seven years under the same scenario, based on current regulated pricing.
Newcastle-based Sun Cooking Australia is holding a free solar-cooking workshop on Sunday, February 2, which will include sampling of food cooked in a solar oven.
The workshop will take place at 3 Lewis Street, Wallsend, from noon to 3pm.
DEEP OCEANS GUIDED TOUR
Take an exclusive tour of Newcastle Museum’s Deep Oceans exhibition and find out a series of intriguing (and revolting) snippets of info that is the daily life of the creatures of the deep! Environmental specialist Tim Silverwood from Take 3 will also talk about the impact of plastic pollution on the marine environment and what we can do to help. Free with normal exhibition entry: $10 adults, $5 children (4-15 years), $25 family of four.
Tuesday, January 28: 3pm-4pm, Newcastle Museum, Workshop Way, Newcastle. Bookings on 49741422.
TALKING TRASH FILM NIGHT
A screening of the award-winning documentary Trashed, which follows actor Jeremy Irons as he travels to once beautiful destinations to see the extent to which we are trashing the planet. Hear from environmentalists Tim Silverwood and Adrian Midwood. Entry by donation (all proceeds to Take 3 and Ocean Ambassadors).
Tuesday, January 28: 6.30pm-9pm, Newcastle Museum Theatrette, Workshop Way, Newcastle. Phone 49742549 for details.
THE OLIVE TREE MARKET
Over 120 handmade art and design stalls plus gourmet and artisan food produce.
Saturday, February 1: 9am to 3pm, The Junction Primary School, Union Street, Merewether.
Sunday, February 2 and 9: 8am-1pm, Newcastle Showground.
Saturday, February 8: 8am-noon, Rotary Park, Lang Street, Kurri Kurri.
Saturday, February 8: 8am-1pm, Speers Point Park.
This hands-on workshop will give practical instruction in aspects of canning and preserving techniques, as well as drying and fermentation. Cost: $100, includes light lunch.
Saturday, February 8: 10am-3pm, Purple Pear Farm, 131 Anambah Road, Anambah. Bookings at purplepearfarm.com.au or on 49320443.
MUMS AND BUBS FARM TOUR
A chance to feed, pat and cuddle animals such as guinea pigs, ponies, cows, ducks, geese, pigs and chickens. Cost: $15 adults, free for children under 12.
Tuesday, February 11: 10am-noon, Purple Pear Farm, 131 Anambah Road, Anambah. Bookings at purplepearfarm.com.au or on 49320443.