Why Flying A Solar Plane Around The World Is Not Victorian Folly

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The one-man solar airplane “Solar Impulse” is on its way around the world. It is propelled exclusively by solar energy, no fuels involved. Some days back, it took off from Abu Dhabi and, after stops in Ahmedabad and Varanasi in India, is now en-route to Mandalay in Burma, then to China and across the vast Pacific. This journey is much more than a feat of daring and expensive Swiss engineering, funded by an eccentric billionaire.

Do you remember the famous British mountaineer George Mallory, who attempted to climb Mount Everest in the 1920s (and possibly succeeded)? When asked why on earth he was so intent on climbing this mountain, he replied in existentialist (or vacuous) terms: “because it’s there.” His expedition stood in the tradition of the Victorian age of exploration, when scientists and adventurers from Europe were high on self-esteem as well as an unshakable belief in progress and their own historic importance. No corner of the planet was safe from them.

The Solar Impulse expedition is crucially different from Mallory’s, not only in that the chances of success are probably, hopefully much higher. Its purpose is also nobler. It helps us on the long path towards a sustainable energy future, which is ultimately linked to mankind’s survival. The pathos, however, does not get us anywhere. Here is why I think this project changes things on the ground:

Shifting our perception of what is possible

I have a friend who works for a large oil company. Whenever we have discussions about renewables, he makes the simple point that while we might be able to shift to electric vehicles at some point in the future, we will always need oil as a fuel for our planes, and air traffic is increasing rapidly.

The discussion was not even about commercialization and implementation: there was quite simply no technological alternative in sight. That has changed. Solar Impulse makes the case for a different energy future in nuts and bolts. Like all acts of pioneering, it expands the horizon for what we believe can be done.

Yes, you might say, but this is a very expensive, one-off project that won’t change the airline industry. Let me tell you why I would not agree with such a statement. The way we do things at the moment is radically unsustainable. I use the word “radical”, because we are in the process of significantly and quickly undermining our climate and through that our livelihood. There is no “business as usual” option for anyone who cares about the future. That puts our generation in an enormously challenging position: We have to make things work in a new way and quite soon.

A challenge, however, is absolutely not the same as impossibility. We are perfectly capable of overcoming challenges through business solutions, policies, personal choices, or technology. It is a matter of will, not of aptitude or logic. A clean energy future is challenging, but it is far less challenging than adapting to global warming. And Solar Impulse has shown us what can be done. Now we need to continue to fly down that path. It won’t be easy, but that does not mean it’s impossible. Just look at flight itself: what was still a distant dream a hundred years ago has become part of everyday life for millions today.

Informing and inspiring

Over the last couple of years, something very interesting and important happened: renewable power generation became a commercially competitive mainstream choice, which in 2013 attracted global investments of more than $215 billion.

In more and more countries, generating power from local renewable energy plants (usually solar) is cheaper than buying power from the grid. In some countries, even storing locally generated renewable power is cheaper than buying from the grid. Wind power is already cheaper in terms of generation than fossil fuel options under many circumstances. These trends change the way investors, consumers, companies and politicians look at the energy industry.

We are actually in the midst of a global, renewables revolution and it involves the end consumer directly. It’s just that too few end consumers are aware of this fundamental shift and, if they are aware, too few are ready to make an informed decision about changing their energy sources. It’s a silent revolution. Now that the commercials are falling into place and that technology is proven and mature, it needs to become louder. There is a huge task of informing and inspiring people across the world to engage with the new clean energy options available to them.

Solar Impulse is a fantastic way of doing that: It is cool, aesthetically beautiful, technologically innovative, mobile and visible. It is accompanied by a state-of-the-art communication strategy using all media channels very effectively. (As of today, it has >82,000 likes on Facebook and >41,000 Twitter followers.) When it flew through India, it was accompanied by an incredible flurry of media coverage and public interest. That is inspiring.

I can picture the young girls and boys along the plane’s path, looking at the sky and feeling that they are seeing a glimpse of the future. I would like to think that this is the moment of “inception” that motivates the next great innovators of our clean energy future.

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14 thoughts on “Why Flying A Solar Plane Around The World Is Not Victorian Folly

  • ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machine, they go up diddly up up, they go down diddly down down. Up, down, flying around, looping the loop and defying the ground. They’re so dreadfully keen, those magnificent men in their flying machine!’ (Roughly recalled from the movie of the same name about early flight, perhaps more Edwardian than Victorian).

  • Impressive though it undoubtedly is, how is it envisaged that a craft can be developed capable of carrying a payload and being airworthy in the same conditions to which existing aircraft are subject? Given that there is little scope for enlarging the surface area of the solar panels they are going to have to be hugely more efficient, no doubt combining CSP with presently unimaginable conversion efficiency.
    Whether that will ever become feasible remains to be seen. In the meantime a solar powered airship would be much less ambitious, though I haven’t seen any reports of plans so far.

    • I’ve now had a trawl and found several relevant sites including 2 on this one from 2009 and 2010. Is an update due?

    • I would think the key to that is to get battery energy density up close to jet fuel energy density. Charge the plane before takeoff, then let solar panels extend the range. Or skip solar panels entirely if batteries are good enough. Or add wind turbines to create a perpetual motion machine!

      I’m wild guessing that biofuel jet fuel will get us carbon-neutral flight faster than battery energy density or solar panel improvements will, but it will be an interesting race.

      • Yes most power for flight is expended when getting into the air and climbing. A lot less for cruise flight and less even for decending ( could be used to charge batteries).
        And yes it is less about our livelihood, more so about our survival.

  • this is all a scam. It’s not really going around the world if it stops in 20 different places. I can jump up in the air and hop across North America. Does that count as not using any fossil fuels?

    • Start hopping.

      Let us know how you’re doing. Especially when you hit the wet spots.

    • So by your logic if you go to work and stop 20 times while on the way you’re not going to work at all? Oh boy…

      Technically they are able to do the flight in one take, but they have a human limitation. The pilot needs to rest at some point. They can do that in the plane, but only for 20minutes at a time. They can do that for 2-3 days if I remember correctly, but certainly not for longer periods of time.

      Second reason they are not doing this is publicity. They want to deliver a message and by landing in places like India and China they can attract a lot more attention.

      In a few years they may be able to do it in one take with SolarImpulse 3 (or 4 or 5), but the plane would need to carry 2 pilots and lot of food and water which adds weight. Let’s take one step at a time.

      • I once did a multi-day solo sail through an area with significant traffic. I slept 20 minutes, got up and did a lookaround, slept 20.

        By the fourth or fifth day I started hallucinating. I had to anchor in open water and sleep.

        • Bertrand and André are doing a lot of meditation and breathing exercises and other preparations to cope with that stress + they have monitoring equipment and a ground crew to help them so they may be able to do a bit better than you did. But then again flying probably requires more alertness than sailing.

          I just read that the longest flight of SolarImpulse 2 will be about five days with 2-3 hours of sleep a day in 20 minute intervals. And all that in conditions ranging from -20°C to +35°C. That won’t be easy.

          • I don’t understand why the pilot would need to wake every 20 minutes and sleep only 2-3 hours per day. I would think the autopilot system and monitoring systems would allow for longer sleep cycles.

            My steering was done by autopilot. My job was to get up and scan out to the horizon to see if there was any traffic in sight. Closing time with a large ship was about a half hour. If I spotted anything then I had to stay above until it was clear that we weren’t on closing courses. And I had to do that around the clock.

          • I don’t know the answer, but I’m interested in knowing it, too.

            My guess would be that it has something to do with the fragility of the plane. It is huge and weighs almost nothing so it is very susceptible to even weak winds. So 20-30 minutes could be the timeframe where you can determine relatively accurate that no strong winds will occur?
            But really that’s just guessing around.
            You could try asking them, I’ve seen them very responsive on social media so they may even answer, especially if it would come from a news site like cleantechnica.

          • “You could try asking them (ie” Solar Impulse.) I’ve seen them very responsive on social media so they may even answer, especially if it would come from a news site like cleantechnica.”

            I hope so. I’ve asked here on several of SI2 Clean Technica articles regarding specifics on the battery chemistry and also posed the same question on one of the Solar Impulse blog pages. So far, no replies . . .


            One of the guys in our local EV club – also interested in knowing which particular lithium ion battery formula is
            being used – also asked me today if I knew if the motors were AC or DC. I didn’t have an answer for him (although the above SI2 site tells us they’re brushless and
            sensorless.) Anyone know?

  • Your friend is right. There won’t ever be solar powered passenger planes, there simply isn’t enough power from the sun hitting the airplane’s wings.

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