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Building a stove, saving the planet

 Peter Scott will speak tomorrow, Thursday, about his plan for a Vashon design lab. See page 23 for details. - Larry Huggins Photo
Peter Scott will speak tomorrow, Thursday, about his plan for a Vashon design lab. See page 23 for details.
— image credit: Larry Huggins Photo

For the past few decades, a small group of men and women with an engineering bent and a determination to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems has been in search of the perfect stove. Not for kitchens in homes, but for villagers in developing countries, where open-fire cooking is denuding tropical forests and making those who tend the fires deathly ill.

Now, one of the leading players in that effort — a man who was recently profiled in The New Yorker in a piece about Third World stove development — has landed on Vashon, where he hopes to take his work to the next level.

Peter Scott, 41, was referred to as a “rock star” in The New Yorker piece, no doubt because of his shaggy hair, pierced ear and quiet intensity. But more than that, he’s a major player on a global stage — just selected as one of the top 100 global thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine. His work is far-reaching. And it now involves Vashon.

Scott plans to develop a design lab on the Island that would act as a research center for stove development, a place where he and a handful of interns could design clean-burning, low-tech prototypes created for specific applications in developing nations. The second phase would take it a bit farther: Once a prototype is created, the tooling to manufacture the stove would also be developed and then shipped to specific countries for mass production there. In development parlance, it’s called a “factory in a box” concept.

Scott is not new to this world. “My forte is to go into a country, see what they have on the ground and build them the most appropriate stove,” he said.

But unlike his counterparts in this burgeoning effort, he doesn’t believe stoves should be mass-produced offshore, in countries like China or the United States, then shipped to countries like Haiti, Congo and Uganda, where they’re needed — a process that doubles the price of a stove due to tariffs and taxes. Instead, he wants to do the research and development here, take the prototype to a country like Uganda to ensure it works, then give the country the tools it needs for its own mass-production.

For Scott, a Vashon-based design lab would amount to taking his life’s work to a new level. He’s been an artisan stove designer engaged in what he calls “small-scale, side-of-the-road” production for the past 15 years, building some 400,000 stoves in 13 African countries. Now, he said, he wants to scale up and capitalize the effort, enabling him to have a much greater impact. It’s a logical evolution, he added, and an essential one.

“Either I retire, or I do this,” he said. “It’s not sustainable for one person to run around the world building individual stoves. ... At some point, at a certain age, we have to solidify and bring people to us. It makes so much more sense for me to manage 50 people in the field.”

Scott landed on Vashon two months ago, after his partner Olivia Pendergast, an artist and Seattle native, “wooed me here,” he said. The two had been leading a life of dizzying travel — Pendergast based in Seattle, Scott in Malawi in southeast Africa, one of the poorest and least developed countries in Africa. They’d meet in Malawi, in Kenya, in Haiti, in Paris. It’s been hard: Pendergast has gotten malaria three times this year, and Scott, sinewy and lean, has had countless bouts of unnamed intestinal ailments.

Now, they’re renting a tidy, cabin-like home on the water north of Dilworth Point — where they wake each day to fresh, briny air and an expansive view of Puget Sound. Scott feels like he’s landed in paradise, but not simply because of the views.

Already, he’s found in Vashon’s progressive community a remarkable receptivity that has buoyed his spirits. Six weeks ago, when he needed a fabricated part for a stove before he left for Haiti the next day, he called Islander Bob Powell, a metal fabricator who, like Scott, is deeply committed to social activism. Powell not only was able to quickly create the piece Scott needed, but he did so at no charge.

It was a significant moment for Scott. “Really, meeting Bob clarified for me that this was the right place,” he said.

Powell also plugged Scott into Vashon’s Green Tech community, a group of entrepreneurial men with an interest in innovation and ecology. They, too, are eager to help Scott transform his dream into reality, Powell said.

Powell, who had read The New Yorker piece when it appeared last December, said he had no idea until he read the article that such an organized and potentially powerful manufacturing effort existed in the world. “It’s just an alternate reality,” he said. Now, Powell — an MIT graduate who jokes that he’s experiencing his second life on Vashon — believes he might find a role to play.

“I think it has the potential to be something of value to the world and personally satisfying,” he said.

Scott, a Canadian, became committed to doing something about the ecological devastation occurring in parts of the Third World some 20 years ago, when, as a student at the University of British Columbia active in anti-apartheid efforts, he found himself in Congo and saw the rampant deforestation that was taking place there. He wept, he recalled, then got down on his knees and vowed to commit his life to doing what he could to end it.

He returned to Canada, where he became an activist addressing forestry issues in British Columbia, working first for the Sierra Club and then the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment. But the image of deforestation that he saw in Congo stayed with him, and in 1997, after reading a Mother Jones’ article about a solar stove project and going on a three-day fast in the canyons of Utah, he realized stove-building was his path. A few weeks later, Scott discovered Aprovecho, a stove research center and a bit of a hippie compound, in Cottage Grove, Ore., and appeared on their doorsteps. “I’m here to save the forests of Africa,” he told them.

Thus began Scott’s re-markable journey, chronicled in part by The New Yorker — a globetrotting effort to design and build the perfect stove. He designed his first stove in 1999 for Hondurans, called Estufa Justa, or “just stove”; created a bread oven in Uganda that uses 90 percent less fuel wood; been at the heart of the Malawi project, an effort to manufacture thousands of institutional stoves and saving, along the way, an estimated $8 million in trees not burned and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. He’s been robbed, held hostage at gunpoint, eaten dinner with people who had cholera and walked over dead bodies.

He’s won wide acclaim for his work. “In the small but fanatical world of stovemakers,” Burkhard Bilger wrote in The New Yorker, “(Scott) is something of a celebrity.” But he’s driven by what he sees as a pressing need.

Deforestation is happening at a rapid clip in Central Africa, home to some of the world’s largest remaining tropical forests. It’s also a pressing health issue. African children in homes where meals are cooked over open fires routinely die of pneumonia, according to The New Yorker. Indoor smoke kills more than 1.5 million people annually.

These days, Scott has — no pun intended — a lot of irons in the fire, and talking to him is a bit dizzying: He’s the design arm for the Paradigm Project, which is working to manufacture stoves for 400,000 households in rural Kenya. He’s got a project in Congo, where he’s working as a consultant for the government to design a $20 million stove factory for the country. He’s helping to develop an energy strategy for Haiti, funded in part by U.S. AID. He has an 10 interns working for him in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Bangladesh — and another 500 requests for internship placements that he has yet to find a way to use. Last year, he said, he had 18 projects in nine different countries.

And his globetrotting has far from ended. Between now and next October, he’ll go to Madagascar, Bangladesh, Congo, Kenya and Haiti.

At the same time, he said, he’s slowing down. (Those five countries over the next 12 months is a slow pace for Scott.) And as he sat at the table at his modest but artful home — adorned with vibrant paintings by Pendergast — he said he’s here to stay. Pendergast is already becoming connected to the community; she has a show coming up at the Blue Heron. And Scott believes he, too, has found the perfect place.

“How do Vashonites know I won’t pick up and leave?” he asked, answering the question in his next breath. “Because I’ve never started something that I didn’t finish.”

Peter Scott will share his experience designing and disseminating fuel-efficient technologies to save forests in the developing world and discuss his state-of-the-art cookstove research center called BURN Design Lab. The presentation will be held at 7 p.m. today, Thursday, Nov. 11, at Courthouse Square.

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