Solar-Powered Planes Are The Future Of Commercial Aviation. Here's Why
Popping off to Paris, New York or Bali every other weekend has lost its cachet, as even jet-setters have started swapping planes for trains. From the moment Greta Thunburg thundered onto our screens, the Swedish concept of "flygskam" or "flight shame" began spreading.
But instead of envisioning a future where either Earth is engulfed in fiery flames or the world becomes as difficult to navigate as it was a century ago, we simply need to change the type of aircraft we use. That’s where Swiss pilot Andre Borschberg comes in. He has spent the last five years developing solar-powered planes—and flying them around the world—to promote clean technology. He created the Solar Impulse 2 with a team of engineers to prove to the world that fuel-free flying was easier to achieve than the aeronautical industry would have us believe.
“Solar Impulse is an electric plane, like the Telsa,” he explains, on the phone from Zurich. “And the energy source comes through batteries or through the use of solar planes. When the panels aren’t activated, say at night, it’s an electric plane. With the solar panels on it has unlimited endurance so long as there is sunlight, which means it can fly forever—something that you can achieve only if you use renewable energy.”
Along with his partner Bertrand Piccard, Borschberg has been working on this project for nearly two decades. It took them 15 years to put together the technical team and raise the US$170 million they needed to fund the project. Their first breakthrough came in 2010 when Borschberg became the first person to ever fly a solar-powered plane at night using no fuel, thanks to their innovative use of battery technology. Later that year, the team flew the plane across Switzerland. And in 2011, they flew to Belgium and France—by 2013, they made it to the US. In 2018, they had circumnavigated the globe.
With the solar panels on it has unlimited endurance so long as there is sunlight, which means it can fly forever
“It feels like an incredible gift to see the sun’s rays and know they are heating the solar panels that are keeping you up in the air—it’s an incredible feeling; a feeling of freedom,” says Borschberg. “It’s very quiet, like being in a glider that can climb. The only thing I can relate it to is being like a Telsa, where there are no vibrations and noise, two features that makes it a different experience to fuel-based flying or driving.”
The central aim of their project was to protect the environment, but they are also passionate about job creation and about allowing people to travel the globe for work, play or simply to visit family—and being able to do so guilt-free. “When I’m talking to the young generation, many of them simply say, ‘I love travel and flying, but I don’t want to pollute the planet’,” he explains. “Which made me realise how big the demand is, and how it would be growing with time.”
The two of them are hoping that their solar-powered plane will be a way to showcase what's possible with clean technology—and that their innovation will shift the way commercial airliners fly. The Solar Impulse 2 weighs 2.4 tons and has a wingspan of 236 feet, which is the same as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. But unlike a jumbo, it is also outfitted with 17,248 solar cells and equipped with four propellers and four batteries.
“The world is changing, fortunately,” he says, “but maybe not as fast as I would have liked. It takes time to change the way we do things, and it is in the interest of many industries to keep the world as it is today. Happily, the mindset of people is shifting, which is important because young people in particular will force the population to change. Changing the way our societies work is like shifting a tanker off its course—it is possible but it’s not easy. In this case, moving away from fuel-based travel will need the combined effort of the public and of entrepreneurs.”
Borschberg believes we could see the first commercially viable solar aircraft in the next decade. That will reduce air and noise pollution, and the price of travel—and as climate change intensifies, it is technology the world will be more than ready for. However, given it took Borschberg nearly a year to circumnavigate the globe just once—as at each of their frequent stops, they had to wait for perfect weather before they flew again – it still has some way to go.
“As we find ways to store electric energy, electric general aviation aircraft will develop. I think slowly it will get to large aircraft," Borschberg says. "But to go a family holiday on an electric 747, I think it will take more time. But mark my words, it will happen. The world needs this technology—and finally the younger generation has forced people to change their agenda. I’m very happy to see political parties around the world are realising that our climate has to be put at the top of every agenda.”
Find honourees in the Environment category of the Gen.T List 2019.