Going Direct: Is The Solar Impulse A Waste Of Energy?

Solar Impulse 2 landed the other day at Moffett Field, in Mountain View, California, on the doorstep of Silicon Valley. It was a fitting intermediate destination for a grand project that sought to prove that solar power was a fitting energy source for airplanes.

In many ways, it has achieved the exact opposite.

Is The Solar Impulse A Waste Of Energy?
Courtesy of Solar Impulse

I know it’s convention to be uncritically approving of high-profile record attempts like this one, and I’m in awe of both the technology and the human endurance it took to make the Hawaii-California nonstop leg happen. Creating an airplane with enough solar-generation capacity and storage to allow it to fly both day, when the solar panels stored energy, and night, when the plane’s engines consumed it, was a monumental engineering challenge. And the feat of the pilots, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, who are tasked with flying a sensitive craft for long periods in cramped conditions, is astonishing. Congratulations to all on a remarkable achievement.

The flight, for the record, took over 62 hours, compared to 17 hours when Amelia Earhart first made the nonstop journey in a Lockheed Vega in 1935, so in that sense, it seems as though we are, as my dad used to like to say, making progress backwards. This solar plane is far slower and carries far less payload than Amelia’s 1930s’ technology greenhouse gas emitter. The cost of the Solar Impulse project is also staggering. Exact details are hard to come by, but estimates for the investment in the program so far run between $150 million and $250 million, a hundred times the investment of Amelia’s team in 1935 corrected dollars.

There’s also the idea of it being a record around-the-world flight. While the Solar Impulse 2 sets a record just about every flight it makes for the least fuel burned on that particular leg, the idea that this is somehow an around-the-world flight is preposterous. The airplane took off from Abu Dhabi in March of 2015, and after it wandered its way to Hawaii, it had to be essentially rebuilt, due to overheating problems with the batteries, requiring months of repair. The next legs of the flight are yet to be determined; Piccard suggested Phoenix as a possible next stop. Plenty of sun there. The already 13-month trip is bound to take a lot longer to complete, which calls into question, in my mind at least, if it’s really all one flight or merely a series of long legs.

Regardless, the Solar Impulse team says that the biggest mission for the flight is to promote clean energy, and that’s a laudable goal. But for my money, the work that Siemens is doing in creating new battery technologies is the work that might not be as sexy, but really matters more. What the Solar Impulse team has done is to show in many ways just how far we are from solar power being a viable form of energy for air transportation. It really makes no sense at all.

Then again, flying a small, single-engine plane nonstop from New York to Paris made no sense when Charles Lindbergh did it in 1927. Yet somehow it changed everything. With the world a lot more blasé about technology today than it ever has been, Solar Impulse will have a far lesser impact on the public consciousness than the “Spirit of St. Louis” did. But less is not the same as none, and there’s no telling what it might bring. In the same way as Lindbergh’s flight energized the world to think about aviation differently, maybe Piccard and Borschberg’s series of sorties will spark the imagination of engineers and pilots to come who will ply the skies silently and cleanly. You never know what might happen, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

7 thoughts on “Going Direct: Is The Solar Impulse A Waste Of Energy?

  1. In 1977 the Gossamer Condor first flew by human power.
    39 years later we are not peddling a human powered planes for recreational exercise.
    The Condor showed what extreme technology can accomplish; it in no way meant
    that the accomplishment was of practical use.
    The same can be said about flying around the world, in a multi million dollar plane the size of a 747 that carries only one person at breath takingly slow speeds using solar panels,

  2. Well, I agree this is an amazing feat to do for a world record flight solely on electricity from the sun, but how much carbon did they add from all of the support team travel and equipment to support this “efficient” process? I would have to guess a whole lot.
    Like all electrically powered transportation a fossil fuel has to be burned someplace in order to support it for at least some was used over the portions provided by nuclear, hydroelectric, solar or wind sources.

  3. Regardless of whether this was really ‘around-the-world’, the several flights, or legs, of Solar Impulse have been an investigation and development into the feasibility of solar power for sustained, powered flight. Clearly, it is, and clearing the next of many hurdles will require yet further technological advancements as well as human endeavour. I really don’t think this was a waste of anything, any more than the moon shot was..

  4. Thanks for the honest evaluation. 250 million dollars? Come on!!
    I’ll stick with my Cessna 182. Much faster and more fuel efficient.
    Sorry but I’m not willing to spend 10 million dollars to go 1000 miles.
    Give me a “green” bio based fuel and I’ll gladly use it, but not at $10,000 per mile.

  5. I’m pretty big fan of Plane and Pilot. That makes this article so frustrating. The leaders of this project have said from the beginning and on numerous occasions, that this project has nothing to do with aviation or trying to prove that solar power is an appropriate fuel for an aircraft. The plane is just the platform for proving a point, experiment with, and bring attention to what might be if we put our minds and energy behind alternative fuel. I’m a right wing conservative nut who thinks that the tree huggers are all crazier than me, but this article was at the very least bad journalism, and I think disingenuous.

  6. I remember when I got my first electric car (Nissan Leaf) back in 2010, everyone I know would comment at the short range (70-90 miles), etc. Then, cars like Tesla with 0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds, range of over 300 miles, ability to get 50% charge in 20 minutes took over our imagination. Now Tesla collected 400,000 pre-orders for their next model.

    Solar Impulse 2 was able to land with more fuel (battery charge) after flying for 3 days when compared with battery charge at takeoff. Can any other plane do that? Sure it costs a lot, but so did the Apollo program. And Apollo program was not paid for by sponsor money, it was our tax money all the way.

  7. If it’s any consolation, the Wrights built a pretty awful airplane in 1903.
    Voyager is approaching its 29th anniversary — yet the “breakthrough” water-cooled engines were never mass-produced.
    Evolution takes time, and it has to start somewhere. Where it leads… ask me in 50 years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *