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.
Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.
CleanTechnica Holiday Wish Book
Our Latest EVObsession Video
CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.