solar airplane

Could solar flight or the Silver Surfer inspire a generation?

The Solar Impulse flew all the way from Switzerland to Morocco and back.

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 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."

Solar Impulse electric plane flies into Madrid

Photo courtesy Altran Group.
The plane Solar Impulse landed in Madrid, Spain on July 7 on its return trip from Morocco.

The 17-hour flight had some turbulence and challenges for pilot Bertrand Piccard, but nothing he couldn't handle.

"After flying towards Tangier and over the Strait of Gibraltar, the solar aircraft steered in the direction of Seville," officials said in a statement. "Because of strong crosswinds over the Iberian Peninsula, the pilot found a holding area west of Seville where he waited for the right moment to continue his journey towards Toledo."

The footage from news service EFEverde shows the Solar Impulse cruise silently in for a landing. Its lights illuminate the broad but lightweight frame something akin to a UFO.

"I hope that Europe will learn from Morocco’s example," Piccard says right after the flight. He's referring to the country's investment into solar infrastructure. "It’s precisely during times of global crisis that there needs to be an investment in renewable energies and energy savings, providing us with what’s necessary to sustain employment, purchasing power and a positive trade balance.

"Thank you Morocco for giving us the good example by building the world’s largest solar power plant."

The slow-moving plane has the wingspan of an Airbus A340 and 12,000 solar cells integrated into the wings to supply four electric motors. The solar cells also charge the 400kg lithium polymer batteries so it can fly at night.

Altran Group, an engineering company involved with the project, says the Solar Impulse team faces far greater challenges when it returns to home base.  "The next major stages in the development of Solar Impulse are to cross the Atlantic then to fly around the world on-board a 2nd prototype, already under construction," Altran officials say.

Solar impulse completes flight in Ouarzazate, Morocco

Solar Impulse's new badge.
 The second time's the charm for the Solar Impulse.

The airplane, which is solely powered by electricity and backed by solar energy, took off early from Rabat, Morocco on June 21, 2012 and landed in Ouarzazate, Morocco about 17 hours later. It had failed in its first attempt last week.

Officials said the flight was Solar Impulse’s most difficult destination in its cross-continental journey due to high winds and turbulence over the arid desert.

"It was a beautiful flight," says pilot and project co-founder André Borschberg.

The Solar Impulse made a successful 19-hour 8-minute flight from Madrid, Spain to Rabat, Morocco earlier in June. The month previous, Borschberg, 59, began the journey from Payerne, Switzerland. He landed in Madrid on May 25.

The plane, a marvel of lightweight engineering, is big as an Airbus A340 with a 207-foot wingspan and features 12,000 solar cells in the wings. The carbon-fiber structure is designed to resist the elements but weigh very little.

In fact, it weighs 3,527 pounds, or about 500 pounds less than the average U.S. car. Speed is an average 43.5 mph and getting aloft requires a takeoff speed of about 22 mph. Average maximum altitude is 27,900 feet. It's outfitted with lithium polymer batteries that account for about a quarter of its weight and enable it to fly in the dark.

Officials say the importance of flying to Morocco’s Ouarzazate region is filled with symbolism. "It is related to the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy and Solar Impulse’s common message: to invest in innovative projects today for job creation and sustainable growth while also protecting the environment."

Solar Impulse landed close to the site of what will be a 160 megawatt solar thermal plant. It's part of a complex planned to reach a capacity of 500 megawatts by 2015. The initial plant is based on concentrating solar power technology using parabolic-trough solar collectors with heat storage.

Morocco’s energy plan is to increase the role of solar, wind and hydro power to 42 percent of the country’s total energy production in less than a decade. "Solar Impulse supports the Kingdom’s strategy, aiming to reconcile the country’s socio-economic development and environmental protection needs," according to a post by the Solar Impulse officials.

The next challenge is to fly around the world. “Striving for the impossible is the DNA of our team,” says Bertrand Piccard, initiator, pilot and chairman of Solar Impulse.

Solar plane soars into Morocco, record books

The Solar Impulse glides in for a landing in Rabat.
The Solar Impulse soared over the Mediterranean Sea into Morocco to a hero's welcome.

"The flight over the Gibraltar Strait was a magical moment," said pilot Bertrand Piccard, Swiss psychiatrist, balloonist and adventurer, on the official website.

The Swiss airplane, which has four electric motors and looks a little like a dime-store balsa-wood model a child would assemble and throw, isn't meant to revolutionize the industry, its designers and backers say. Rather it is meant to draw attention to the potential of renewable energy.

“Our airplane is not designed to carry passengers, but to carry a message.” Piccard says.

Lightweight marvel

The plane itself is a marvel of lightweight engineering. Big as an Airbus A340 with a 207-foot wingspan, it features 12,000 solar cells in the wings and a carbon-fiber structure designed to resist the elements but weigh very little.

In fact, it weighs 3,527 pounds, or about 500 pounds less than the average U.S. car. Speed is hardly an attribute with an average of 43.5 mph and a takeoff speed of about 22 mph. Average maximum altitude is 27,900 feet. The Solar Impulse also is outfitted with lithium polymer batteries that account for about a quarter of its weight and enable it to fly in the dark.

Dave Williams of French news service AFP says the aircraft made history in July 2010 as the first manned plane to fly around the clock on the sun's energy. It holds the record for the longest flight by a manned solar-powered aeroplane after staying aloft for 26 hours, 10 minutes and 19 seconds above Switzerland, also setting a record for altitude by flying at 30,298 feet.

The Solar Impulse began its latest effort, a 2,500 kilometer intercontinental flight, in May departing from Payerne, Switzerland, with project co-founder Andre Borschberg, 59, at the controls. He landed in Madrid, Spain, on May 25. Piccard took over from there, leaving Spain on June 5 for a flight to Rabat, Morocco, that lasted 19 hours and 8 minutes.

Solar energy in Morocco

The flight, organizers say, was made to coincide with the ground-breaking in southern Morocco of the world's largest solar thermal plant. The World Bank-financed project in Ouarzazate is projected to produce 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy for North Africa and Europe. The airplane will fly to Ouarzazate after a five-day layover in Rabat.

Mustapha Bakkoury, president of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy, says in a statement that the Solar Impulse flight is important for raising awareness about solar energy's potential to reduce global dependence on oil.

"We share a common message with Solar Impulse," he says. "Solar energy is no longer restricted to the scientific world but is becoming an integral part of our daily lives." Bakkoury says Morocco will be producing solar-energy by 2014, when Solar Impulse plans a round-the-world tour.