On March 18th an immense and majestic aircraft landed in Varanasi. It was Solar Impulse, the fragile Swiss airplane on its way for the first round-the-world solar flight in twelve legs. On March 30th it landed in China, from where it will cross the Pacific, land in the USA and leave New York to cross the Atlantic. Start and finish are in Abu Dhabi, home to the headquarters of IRENA (the International Renewable Energy Agency) and to Masdar City, the solar town conceived by Sir Norman Foster. The Solar Impulse's route and cockpit notations are available in real time.
The silhouette of this revolutionary aircraft is surging in these days as a global icon. Search the web now for "the world's most famous and recognisable aeroplane" or "one of the most enduring icons of the XX century". You will find the celebration of the glorious Concorde, the first and last supersonic airliner, in service between 1976 and 2003. Some icons outlive their origins. Yet, at the turn of the century a grave-marker was placed on that herald of a new era and the foundation-stone set for Solar Impulse. The two revolutionary planes have nothing in common but their iconic character.
First up, the Concorde - Herald of a new era
Politically and physically the Concorde was a heavyweight. A joint-venture financed by the French and British governments, it should have been a mark of pan-European grandeur, although the two governments fought long on the final "e". It weighed 184 tons, carried 96 tons of kerosene and potentially 100 passengers--but 65 on average. It flew London to New York in three and a half hours at 2200 km/h and at a project cost of 20 billion euro. It boldly predicted: "The future of civil aviation. Arrive before you leave. Speed sells seats."
This thrilling claim promised a futuristic aviation era: 400 supersonic jets would most certainly criss-cross the skies by the year 2000. Yet, that gem technology stands as an economic and ecologic fiasco.
Compared to conventional aircraft, its speed was more than double, fuel consumption triple and cost of passage frequently tenfold. Concorde was essentially an elegant needle, with meagre space for passengers. It was the only airliner where fuel outweighed all else. Because of its disproportionate take-off noise and breaking of the sound barrier it was soon unwelcome or forbidden in most places.
To complicate matters further, in the '70s the oil-prices rose dramatically. Soon all but two airlines cancelled their dozens of orders. Finally the two state companies British Airways and Air France swallowed the outrageous costs of fourteen brand new and already obsolete aircraft. In game theory "Concorde fallacy" became the definition of a situation that you cannot pull out of, once in--what is now explained in finance as "too big to fail".
In spite of governments subsidising part of the tickets, sales failed even to approach operating costs, let alone R&D and construction costs. The appearance of the Concorde was slim. Yet that aircraft was the apotheosis of waste and ego. Amplified power and acceleration came along with even more energy waste, noise and air pollution. The mark of a century.
Solar Impulse - Another mark of another century?
Now gaze with wonder at Solar Impulse, a grand dragonfly, simply buzzing. With 72 meters of wingspread, it equals an Airbus 380 and it weights a mere 2.3 tons. It cruises at a modest 60 to 90 km/h and cost 100 million euro. Endangered by strong winds, powered by a mere average 8 HP and only able to carry a single passenger in miserable discomfort, it takes off at the speed of a bicycle. This description precisely matches two aircraft: Solar Impulse of 2015, and Wright Flyer of 1903. Both proved something deemed impossible: the former to fly by means of a combustion engine--the latter by electromotors, powered by the sun.
Flying the solar flag
Is Solar Impulse an extravagant toy, built on a whim? Nobody expects photovoltaic to move transport aircraft. Positive spill-over may concern some technical innovation, so it's no coincidence that Google, Swisscom and other big technological industries are among its sponsors. But a viable business model is not the point. The enterprise simply proves a point and spreads an idea. The point is that modern solar technology is ripe for the most ambitious challenges. The idea is that this century must be one of renewable energy.
The idea is controversial, but historically significant. Spreading in a world of rising conflicts, it is peaceful and pacifying. Tens of millions of people are committed to this ambitious idea that foretells millennial change for billions. It's also a pragmatic idea, because it proposes what may be the ray of sunshine out of our climate crisis and its follow-on world energy conflicts.
"The point is that modern solar technology is ripe for the most ambitious challenges. The idea is that this century must be one of renewable energy."
Needless to say, Solar Impulse is an experimental prototype. But what it stands for--technological leadership in renewable energy--is by now an established and fast growing factor in the global market place. On the long term, the unit costs of renewable energies is waning, while those for atomic and most fossil energies are rising or volatile. Deemed impossible by many, the vision of Europe producing its electricity and later almost its entire energy supply from renewable sources is attractive to a growing number of scientists, engineers, investors and politicians.
It's no coincidence that Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, founders and pilots of Solar Impulse, as well as its technology are Swiss. Switzerland aims to be a '2000-watt society' in the second half of this century, reducing its per capita use of primary energy by two thirds, mainly using renewable energy and virtually abandoning fossil fuels. If Solar Impulse can fly around the world with solar energy--say solar pioneers--who can say that this energy cannot run stationary devices through the grid, or even directly? Schindler, another Swiss firm and sponsor of Solar Impulse, already sells a solar lift.
If the silhouette of Solar Impulse becomes a popular icon of an opening era of renewable energy and works to hasten its coming, that will be its greatest return on investment. Solar is a disruptive technology. Disruption was often expensive and distrusted at its beginning. In conclusion, let's compare the icons of Concorde and Solar Impulse. Indeed, the future is no longer what it used to be!