Solar-powered plane soars across the Atlantic

Flying high: Bertrand Piccard glided over the Golden Gate bridge in April. © Jean Revillard

Solar Impulse 2 has flown from New York to Spain in the latest leg of its historic trip around the world. It did not use a single drop of fuel. Will we soon see the end of fossil fuels?

During his four-day journey over the Atlantic Ocean, Bertrand Piccard spotted whales breaking through the waves beneath him and an iceberg which had floated down from the Arctic.

He was sitting, unable to move, in the tiny cockpit of Solar Impulse 2, a lightweight plane which is entirely fuelled by the solar cells covering its 72m-wide wings. While the sun shone during the day, the plane’s batteries would recharge as he climbed up 29,000 feet above the water. At night, he would glide 5,000 feet down again to conserve as much power as possible.

Solar Impulse 2 is now nearing the end of its historic bid, which began in March 2015, to become the first solar-powered plane to travel around the world. The Atlantic was not its longest trip — that was the Pacific — but it was the most symbolic, says Piccard. New transportation technologies always try to cross the Atlantic: ‘the first steamboats, the first aeroplane, the first balloons, the first airships and, today, it is the first solar-powered aeroplane.’

There are now just one or two flights left, to reach the plane’s starting point in Abu Dhabi. But the goal has not really been to ‘change aviation’, as it was for Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927. Instead, it is to ‘inspire people’ to embrace renewable technologies.

Global warming activists will be grateful: 2015 was the hottest year on record, and May 2016 was the 13th month in a row to become the warmest ever recorded. If something is not done soon, humanity will lose its chance to stop global average temperatures rising by more than 2°C, the point which scientists agree would be ‘catastrophic’.

But it is not too late, say campaigners. The recent collapse of oil prices means that energy companies, already with debts of up to $3 trillion, are at risk of going bankrupt. Instead of searching for more fuel in increasingly risky places, it makes far more sense to start investing in cleaner alternatives.

Could we be on the verge of a world without fossil fuels?

Easy being green?

No, say some. Industrial countries were built on fossil fuels, and poorer countries still need them for growth. Replacing them will take decades and renewable energy is not ready — Solar Impulse 2 has taken well over a year on a journey that normal planes can do in 50 hours. A fossil fuel-free future is pure fantasy.

Yes! Solar Impulse 2 is proof of humanity’s amazing ingenuity. In 1903 the Wright brothers’ first flight was an extraordinary feat of engineering — but the technology improved quickly, and now around 100,000 planes fly every day. It makes financial and environmental sense to use renewable energy; the sooner we get to work, the better.

You Decide

  1. Is it naive to imagine a world without fossil fuels?
  2. Would you swap easy air travel for a greener future?

Activities

  1. Design a town which runs entirely on renewable energy. What do the houses and buildings look like? What kind of transport does it use?
  2. Imagine you are in charge of an energy company like Shell or BP. Then read the Alternet article under Become An Expert. Write a plan, explaining what your company should do over the next ten years.

Some People Say...

“Climate change is not a threat, it is an opportunity.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I feel powerless against climate change. What can I do?
Fighting climate change will take a huge, combined effort. But you should not feel hopeless — 175 world leaders signed an agreement last year to tackle the issue by reducing their countries’ emissions. That is huge progress. In the meantime, there are lots of small things you can do to reduce emissions in your own life, like using public transport and energy saving light bulbs.
Why haven’t governments done more already?
Around 9% of the world’s energy comes from renewable sources. But in industrial nations like Britain, switching over entirely is an extremely difficult task: most of our cars use petrol or diesel, many of our kitchens use gas, and it takes years — and a lot of money — to build new power stations.

Word Watch

Bertrand Piccard
One of two pilots flying Solar Impulse 2 around the world. Piccard comes from a family of historic explorers. The other pilot is the engineer and businessman André Borschberg.
Unable to move
On board, his pilot seat also functions as a toilet; he sleeps only for short naps.
72m-wide
Although Solar Impulse 2 can only carry one person, its wingspan is wider than a Boeing 747 (the ‘jumbo jet’, one of the most common commercial planes.)
2°C
According to NASA, global temperatures in February were 1.35°C above average (the ‘average’ baseline is between 1950-1980). However, the natural warming which occurs during an ‘El Niño’ period — the end of which we are now approaching — is also at work.
Oil prices
These have fallen by two-thirds since 2014, sending the industry into a downward spiral. As companies attempt to sell more oil to plug the gap caused by low prices, the oil price declines even further.
$3 trillion
According to Jaime Caruana of the Bank for International Settlements, the debts owed by the oil and gas industry tripled to $3 trillion between 2006 and 2014.

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