Compared to its fossil-fueled brethren, it didn't set any speed records. The plane, which has the wingspan of an Airbus A340 and 12,000 solar cells integrated into the wings to supply four electric motors, travels about as fast as most people in a residential 25 mph zone when they think nobody's looking.
The solar cells also charge the 400kg lithium polymer batteries so the aircraft can fly at night.
But the Solar Impulse is a one of a kind, a vanguard, something that could inspire a generation to believe in the power of the sun. I'd liken it to the Herald of Galactus in issue 48 of the Fantastic Four. Although the concept of the cosmic Silver Surfer was far different, his arrival made the citizens of earth (in the Marvel Comics universe) look to the sky.
There they saw unbridled power.
A new generation
I'd argue that power is there even without the Surfer. Every day the societies of this tiny planet of ours use about 15 terawatts of power. A terawatt is a trillion watts.
Derek Abbott, a professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia, says his country could capture enough solar energy to satisfy the world. Maybe more. The sun, he says, produces enough energy to power about 10,000 of our planets, or 174,000 terawatts.
Abbott explains in videos available on YouTube that with 500-by-500 square kilometers of parabolic mirrors, enough of the sun's rays could be reflected back to boil water and create electricity. Excess energy would be used to generate hydrogen, which could be exported as a clean-burning fuel.
Simple? Certainly more straight-forward than letting Galactus into our solar system so he could suck the planet dry.
Challenge of Galactus
While that threat may seem to those of you who didn't grow up reading Marvel comics, pollution and climate change provide a threat nearly as scary. Thus, a little inspiration can't hurt. Little things, like the Solar Impulse, may trigger interest in just one kid who'll go on to unlock the key to tapping zero-point energy.
And while I'm on the subject of cool new stuff, there's another electric plane in the news. This one was recently flown by Chip Yates, the guy who drove the world's fastest motorcycle into the record books.
Flying electric, fast
This time Yates climbed into the cockpit of an odd experimental-looking aircraft, dubbed the Flight of the Century Long-ESA electric test plane, and took off from Inyokern Airport in California on July 19, according to Paul Ridden of gizmag.com. Ridden says the plane was converted from a Long-EZ aircraft, which is an outfit that provides materials and parts to the do-it-yourself airplane builder.
"During the flight, Yates managed to ramp the speed up to 202.6 mph and lay claim to yet another speed record," Ridden writes.
So, will these developments affect the solar industry? Perhaps. But Tom Cotter, sales manager of Real Goods Solar Central Valley in Fresno, Calif., put my initial exuberance in perspective.
The Real Goods perspective
"The solar electric plane is cool technologically, makes a great newsworthy story and could be used by educators to wow students into interest in solar/renewables/physics," he says. "As far as the North American solar industry, it doesn't do much."
Cotter, an astute follower of the clean energy industry and a true believer in clean air, explains that the solar industry is undergoing its own evolution as air conditioning contractors, furniture companies, Joe-in-the-truck handymen, electrical companies and others get into the business of installing photovoltaic panels.
Many have said that the real answer to building the potential of clean energy is to put solar panels on every available rooftop and push for net-zero energy buildings. But this requires building a bullet-proof reputation. A lot depends on word-of-mouth sales. Spotty work could torpedo growth.
An industry pioneer
Cotter says Real Goods Solar sold the first solar module at the retail level in the United States back in 1978, developing into the "backbone" of the residential industry. "What we've experienced is that as solar becomes more prevalent and something that everyone offers, there are some who have had less than stellar experiences with some companies," he says.
Cotter says his industry's job is offering the public quick bite-sized informational bits that can pique interest or correct misinformation. "Photovoltaics have come a long way and are reliable, look great and have warranties for 25 years. The next big thing is customers taking advantage of what the sun can do," he says.
"There will be small advances in technology, but the real advance will be adoption of what is already available."
An inspiration from the Surfer
There are quite a few technologies in the pipeline that will enhance the experience. But what Cotter says is true. We have the power to transform our environment now. We just have to take the initiative.
And be careful who you buy from. For more about Cotter, here's his linkedin site.
And don't be afraid to innovate. Young people are the future of the clean energy industry, and their inspiration is pivotal. Whether it takes a solar plane, electric motorcycle or coming up with a cosmic-powered atmospheric encapsulated surf board, we need their hope and determination.
And we need to do all the other stuff right. As my former boss Courtney Kalashian would repeat to me (especially in my darkest moods), "Mike, as I've said before, failure is not an option."