This past week, I saw a documentary on the flight of the Solar Impulse 2, the first airplane to circumnavigate the globe without fuel–the plane is solar powered. It’s a great story.
The visionary behind the project, Bertrand Piccard, is the latest in a long line of brilliant dare-devil explorers who have been building and piloting record-breaking balloons and submarines and the like for generations. His great-uncle, Jean Felix Piccard, was the historical inspiration for that Star Trek captain with a very similar name, and the real and fictional Piccards actually bear a bizarre physical resemblance; Bertrand looks like a relative of Jean-Luc. The airplane itself is one of those objects everybody insisted could never be built, could never work–to have enough solar cells to generate enough power, the plane would have to be very big, but big planes need even more power to fly, so the plane would have to be even bigger, which would mean…unless the plane were absurdly light and under-powered (and still big), in which case it would be hard to fly and prone to break if a cloud looked at it funny. Impossible. But Captain Piccard assembled a team, said “make it so,” and they did, and it worked, and there you go.
Just to give everyone due credit, the plane had two pilots who took turns, Mr. Piccard and Andre Borschberg, and a large team of engineers and other mission-support personnel, without whom the project would not have worked.
Obviously, part of the motivation for the whole project was the coolness factor. Mountaineers climb Everest “because it’s there,” and Piccards probably invent and pilot unusual flying machines or submarines for similar reasons. But the specific mission for the Solar Impulse 2, and the thing that brings it under the purview of this blog, was to raise awareness for renewable energy. While the plane itself is far from practical (it can only carry a single person–the pilot–and only under ideal conditions), its existence suggests greater things to come and, as Mr. Piccard is fond of pointing out, everything is more difficult in the sky, so if solar power can work even marginally for an airplane, there’s no excuse for not using it on the ground.
All of this is laudable. There is a long history of impractical-seeming exploration leading to very practical technical innovation, and there is much to be said for crazy stunts as a way to get media attention. If flying around the world in an extremely fragile experimental airplane gets you on TV saying “climate change is real and important and we have to do something!” than I am all for it. These people are doing it right, making a difference.
Also, based on his appearance on the documentary, I find Bertand Piccard impossible not to like. He positively glows with a kind of driven, excitement, the kind of delighted passion usually called “childlike,” except it’s also obvious that you’d better not get in his way. He’s probably hard to live with, but as I don’t have to live with him, I’m free to just think he’s really cool. And he’s good-looking, so that helps.
I point all this out in order to make sure my next question is not misunderstood:
What was the carbon footprint of this project?
I suspect somebody has calculated the answer, but finding the number is not really the point–I’m sure the footprint was huge. Consider just two aspects of the project. First, the plane took off from Abu Dhabi, and eventually returned there, triumphant, but that’s not where it was built. The documentary clearly showed the Solar Impulse 2 arriving at the Abu Dhabi airport inside the belly of a giant cargo plane. That cargo plane was not solar powered. Second, the Solar Impulse 2 can carry only one human at a time, but it had two pilots who alternated. One pilot would land and, I assume, go sleep in a hotel for three days, and the next pilot would board and take off. That means that the relief pilot, not to mention the ground crew and the specialized portable hanger, must have flown (in non-solar aircraft) to the meeting place. Since weeks or months sometimes went by between the legs of the journey, the pilots probably flew home sometimes, too.
It’s not that the project was necessarily carbon-heavy as such things go, but it obviously wasn’t carbon-light, either, and it definitely wasn’t a flight around the world using no fuel. The airplane that doesn’t use fuel requires the support of those that do.
As I said, the value of the project was as an early proof of concept and as a stunt designed to trigger necessary conversations. As such, it was a good and important project. But I’d like to suggest a follow-up:
How about a team of people go around the world ACTUALLY with zero fossil fuel?
Or, better yet, several teams, and have them race? They’ll be walking, biking, sailing, rafting, and in some areas using plug-in hybrid cars and possibly some experimental technology. The race will provide both audience interest and an incentive for teams to innovate, rather than simply walking and sailing for three or four years. Infrastructure and technology will be tested and explored, possibly triggering useful innovations, such as bike lanes and walkable city designs. Local people will appear in interviews on BBC and PBS with translators doing voice-overs. It will be great.
Because we know that climate change isn’t really a technological problem. Better technology will help, but we could do a lot more to combat climate change with the technology we have. The problem is cultural and political, and requires cultural and political solutions.
A big, attention-grabbing demonstration of the zero-carbon transportation tools we already have might help.