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With the sun on its wings

On 7 April 2010, a light aircraft with an unusually wide wingspan took off from a small airfield in the Swiss canton of Vaud. During its one-and-a-half hour flight it reached an altitude of 1,200 metres and went through its paces of turns, approaches and landing. Unlike in the legend of Icarus, the sun did not melt this plane’s wings, but actually powered them. This was one of the world’s first solar-powered flights, and the OECD Observer caught up with one of the creators and pilots of the Solar Impulse HBSIA aircraft, Bertrand Piccard.

OECD Observer: How serious is solar energy as a solution for air transport–and other forms of transport? Bertrand Piccard: Solar Impulse wants to demonstrate what can be achieved when using renewable and current technologies that allow energy saving. We rapidly saw our technologies used for high altitude, remote-controlled, solar-powered telecommunication platforms, but for air transport, it’s difficult to answer now. Remember when Lindbergh made his Atlantic flight in 1927, he was alone in an airplane whose payload was used for gasoline. Lindbergh took off with 2,000 litres of fuel! Our batteries are 400kg–25% of the total weight of the plane. Nobody could imagine at the time that hundreds of passengers would cross the ocean in airplanes a few years later. Today, Solar Impulse holds one pilot and 400 kilos of batteries. What will happen in the future? I don’t know, but aviation will have to evolve to meet the challenges of the environment and increasing fuel prices.

What innovation obstacles stand in the way of achieving your goals? In order to fly night and day propelled only by solar energy and to go once around the world, we knew from the beginning that the aircraft would have to be very big to provide enough surface–200 m2–to implement the solar cells and collect sufficient energy. At the same time, we needed to build an ultra light aircraft–1,600 kg–to save the maximum energy to be able to fly through the night. Each watt and each gramme counted! We had to push the limits of current technologies in every field. The result is breathtaking: the wingspan of an Airbus 340 (63.4 metres), the weight of a midsize car (1,600 kg) and flying with the average power of a small motorcycle (four 10-horsepower electric engines).

This said, Solar Impulse wants to become a symbol of what can be achieved with renewable energy. We want to encourage as many people as possible to use clean technology and renewable in their daily lives. If an aircraft is able to fly day and night without fuel, propelled only by solar energy, let no one claim that it is impossible to do the same thing for motor vehicles, heating, air conditioning systems and computers. This project voices our conviction that a pioneering spirit together with political vision can change society and bring about an end to fossil fuel dependency.

How can policymakers facilitate your efforts? If we are to reduce our dependency on fossil energy, we need to massively invest in technologies that reduce energy consumption and quickly start to switch to alternative sources. Hence we need government intervention, such as feed-in tariffs, clear legal limits on energy consumption and mandatory inclusion of environmental costs in the selling price of every product. Policymakers must have the vision to end our dangerous dependency on fossil energies: it’s actually the best way to boost the economy and industry, create jobs, and put new products on the market. The implementation of technologies that allow energy savings would bring more profit for stock markets! But people have to be nudged in this direction as they are afraid to take the first step by themselves!

Visit www.solarimpulse.com

©OECD Observer No 279 May 2010