Guest essay by Eric Worrall
The Solar Impulse 2 has
finally completed completed the latest leg of its round the world flight. In engineering terms, a round the world flight using solar power is a remarkable achievement. But the difficulty of achieving this feat showcases why solar energy will never be a viable replacement for fossil fuels.
An experimental plane flying around the world without a single drop of fuel landed in California after a two-and-a-half day flight across the Pacific.
Piloted by Swiss explorer and psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard, Solar Impulse 2 touched down in Mountain View just before midnight (3 a.m. ET).
“It’s a new era. It’s not science fiction. It’s today,” Piccard told CNN from California after his successful voyage. “It exists and clean technologies can do the impossible.”
Images of the elegant solar aircraft, which has the wingspan of a Boeing 747 but only weighs about as much as an SUV, flying over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay mark a significant achievement. The team has seen the project beset with problems and setbacks during its pioneering airborne circumnavigation.
“I’m very happy that everything works extremely well and the airplane is functioning as it should,” Piccard’s business partner and the plane’s other pilot, Swiss engineer Andre Borschberg, told CNN by phone from California just ahead of the successful, on-schedule landing.
“It’s a demonstration that the tech is reliable.”
The plane took off from Hawaii on Thursday, resuming a journey that had stalled on the island of Oahu for almost 10 months.
Solar planes can’t carry meaningful amounts of cargo. They can barely carry passengers.
I am not disrespecting the talent of the engineers who achieved this feat. Flying a solar plane around the world is a remarkable achievement. But this achievement does not demonstrate the technology is viable. What it demonstrates is that solar is a ridiculously poor source of power. A solar collector the size of a 747 just managed to collect enough electricity, to keep an incredibly lightweight plane aloft.
Just like solar panels, solar planes might find some niche uses, such as long life high altitude robotic observation platforms, or even as mobile telephone repeater stations – solar planes are not restricted by fuel payload, and can reach very high altitudes, because they don’t depend on burning fuel with oxygen for their power.
Solar planes will never replace fossil fuel powered planes, for ferrying people and high value cargoes across vast distances.
Update (EW): h/t etudiant – the flight is not yet complete…