Microgrids Can Fly

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ABB is one of my favorite companies in the world (disclosure: that is probably part of the reason why I’m an ABB shareholder, but I’ve been a fan far longer than I’ve been a shareholder). It is a big player in the solar energy industry, the electric vehicle industry, the energy efficiency industry, the wind energy industry, and other good cleantech industries.

Having so many big hands in the energy arena, ABB* is able to pass the ball from one ABB player to another in order to implement a coordinated, competitive play and slam the dunk in what we like to call a microgrid. For a little more on this topic, I have to recommend my last interview with ABB’s head of microgrids, Maxine Ghavi, soon after she transitioned from heading up ABB’s solar work to heading up its microgrid work. (Yes, I know, we’re long due a reunion and new interview.)

Screenshot of CleanTechnica interview with ABB pilot Bertrand Piccard.

But this story, as you can see in the headline, isn’t about typical land-based microgrid communities — this is about a microgrid in the sky. If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m talking about Solar Impulse 2.

If you’ve somehow been trapped in a cave for the past couple of years, Solar Impulse 2 is a solar-powered airplane that is flying around the world. If you really think about it, you could call it a flying microgrid. And that is certainly a great way to bring attention to a topic (microgrids) that may not sound interesting to your average Joe.

To fly a plane around the world only on electricity produced from sunshine, you have to get pretty extreme, and that’s surely one key reason the Solar Impulse team brought ABB onboard as a key partner. Let’s remember, this is no lab trial or on-the-ground pilot project that has a bit of space available for failure. As ABB’s Conor Lennon puts it:

“In the air, this is a one-off prototype and a high-risk endeavor. If there is any miscalculation by the pilot or support team, the plane could run out of energy during a multi-day ocean crossing. If it does so, there’s no plan B. The pilot would have to bail out, and the mission would be over.”


ABB’s on-the-ground experience with microgrids, though, is what provides it with the experience and confidence to help the Solar Impulse pilots with their record-shattering mission. As shown in the video at the top, Bertrand Piccard notes:

“The partnership with ABB is not only technological; it’s also a partnership in spirit. Because what we we try to do at Solar Impulse is to demonstrate how clean technologies can be used to achieve the impossible, and it’s clear if we can fly day and night with no fuel, it means these technologies are mature [enough] to also help people on the ground to reduce their energy consumption and their CO2 emissions. And, in that sense, I think ABB gives the credibility to what we are doing in the air, because they do it on the ground for everybody.”

I talked with Maxine about ABB’s work in microgrids way back in 2013, before microgrids was such a hot term in the clean energy world. ABB has since taken on projects in Hawaii (where Solar Impulse 2 recently returned to the skies after a bit of a sabbatical), Antarctica, Chile, Australia, the island of Faial in the Atlantic Ocean, and Kodiak Island in Alaska, just to name a few locations. Here’s a fun snapshot of ABB’s work in Hawaii:

We’ll dive into more of the details of how ABB is helping a microgrid fly across the sky in the coming months. It should be fun stuff for any cleantech nerd out there (raise your hands! we know who you are!), as well as for an average human … if we do our jobs well enough. After all, the point is to bring more people into the cleantech revolution and grow the inspiration and commitment to clean our world and stabilize our climate.

*This article was kindly sponsored by ABB.

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