Around the world in five months, or so

As the plane makes its path-breaking flight, the impulse to go solar has its limitations

Solar Impulse proves that solar energy is good for the environment but it comes with its limitations.  Photo: Jean Revillard / EPA
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There is a slightly old-fashioned feel about the latest attempt to make aviation history – a solar-powered plane’s quest to put a girdle around the globe. When Solar Impulse 2 took off from Abu Dhabi yesterday, it was expected to take 10 hours to reach its first stop, Muscat, which is about an hour away on a conventional commercial flight. Altogether, the plane will take at least five months to travel around the globe. Back in 1873, Jules Verne was able to send Phileas Fogg around the world in 80 days.

Solar Impulse 2’s pilots, Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, will alternate flying the single-seater. Their task has been described as akin to the challenges faced by a round-the-world yachtsman.

And yet, Solar Impulse 2 is about tomorrow’s world. By using solar power rather than conventional fuel, the plane illustrates the possibilities of renewable energy sources.

Last year, the International Energy Agency issued a report that raised the possibility that solar power would displace fossil fuels to become the world’s biggest source of electricity by 2050. It based some of this on the falling price of photovoltaic panels and improved efficiencies in the technology.

In some countries, solar power has already achieved so-called “socket parity” – the ultimate aim for a new energy technology, when it can generate electricity at a price that is less than or equal to that from the electricity grid. Solar power can be used to heat water, run water pumps, cook and power the home. Nuclear energy is an excellent source of process heat for various industrial applications. Battery-powered or hybrid cars are making an impact on car markets overseas, and hydrogen-cell vehicles are about to follow.

But these alternative energy sources simply can’t replace hydrocarbons, the most broadly used organic compounds known and used as fuel for combustion, particularly in heating and motor fuel applications. Sometimes, they are described, quite literally, as the driving force of human progress. Or at least for now. Clearly, how we power our technological civilisation forward is defined by the most efficient source of energy for each need. But as Solar Impulse 2 shows, those definitions are being revised as we move forward, even as we look back. Watch this space.