Saturday Market Leads to Prince Charles

What happens after a former Saturday Market vendor meets privately with Prince Charles? We don’t know yet, but it could help save the planet.

Dean Still joins a child-like curiosity with a very mature drive and discipline. I first met Still when he sold handmade children’s toys at Saturday Market, insisting that science can be more fun and more useful than most people think. He helped run a farm and a school and a lab in Cottage Grove called Aprovecho, Spanish for “to make the best use of.” He’d show how a little vacuum and steam explosion can power a bathtub putt-putt boat, and then he’d exclaim “Isn’t that cool?”

Fifteen years later, he and a Chinese partner have the largest efficient cook-stove factory in the world, and he’s using the same exclamation: “Isn’t that cool?”

Stove-Tec stoves (www.stovetec.net) are 50 percent more efficient than an open flame. A better fire burns its own waste. More efficient heat for cooking reduces deforestation, improves health, and slows global warming.

Shengzhou Stove Manufacturer can build 50,000 of Still’s stove each month for $8 apiece. Still wants to get the stoves to the poorest humans on the planet for free. “Relief agencies give these people tents. They give them food. They even give them plates. They should also give them stoves.”

But let’s back up first.

Still met his wife Kim at Saturday Market, where she’s on staff. She has a confession to make. “Dean spends a lot of time starting fires,” she admits. “It turns out, nobody really knows how fire works. The chemistry of combustion is actually quite mysterious.”

Still takes his wife’s point further. “It’s amazing how little we know about the basic stuff. We don’t really understand how essential processes like fire and photosynthesis work. There is very little funding for science in service of the poor. Drinking water, breathable air. We’ve been able to pass those issues by, because we have wealth.”

Still and his staff of engineers, scientists and researchers are going back to fill in those steps we skipped along the way.

Still and his staff sit me down to watch a video about the stove’s factory in China. They’re on track to produce over a million of these stoves — saving money, saving lives, and saving the planet. Still can’t help himself — he squeezes my shoulder, a non-verbal “Isn’t that cool?”

“He does that every time,” admits Sandra Moen, Aprovecho’s business manager.

Still is not apologetic. “This is my dream come true.”

The trajectory shifted a couple years ago when the Aprovecho staff became frustrated with the bureaucracy of grant-funded research. They decided they’d rather go it alone and do the right thing, rather than spend their time documenting progress to satisfy grantors.

Moen remembers the moment well. “We all sat in a room and agreed we’d like to no longer be paid to do nothing. Time is running out. We’d rather earn less and do more. So all eleven of us agreed to a substantial pay cut. It was unanimous. And adamant.”

Their commercial ventures to “bring affordable solutions to essential problems” earned Still a trip to London as one of seven international finalists for the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy, hosted last month by Prince Charles at the Royal Geographical Society. Think “Green Grammys.”

Still’s boyishness returns. “The second-best part of the evening was seeing my wife Kim in a dress she made herself and a hat she bought at Saturday Market, looking absolutely radiant. She attracted an entourage of lords. That was fun.”

Fun never evades Still.

“The best part was meeting Prince Charles. He was a warm, natural, friendly person who doesn’t have to like you but does. I’ve never had a hero in my life, but now I do.” He points to a cardboard cut-out of the prince, posted near his desk. “I bought that on the street corner, but he’s now a friend of this project. Isn’t that cool?”

“I’m redoubling my efforts now to build the perfect cook stove. The first one I make, I’m gonna give it to him.”

Did I mention that Dean and his Chinese partner won the energy champion award, returning from London with $66,000 in prize money and international stature? Well, he didn’t mention it either. Maybe that was the third best part.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard. Stove-Tec stoves can be purchased at www.stovetec.net. The Ashden Awards can be visited at www.ashdenawards.org/international. The video that prompted that involuntary shoulder-squeeze can be viewed at www.green.tv/ashden_awards09_aprovecho