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Solar pioneer

by Jason O'Connell on Oct 1, 2015

Bertrand Piccard and his co-pilot Andre Borschberg set out from Abu Dhabi in March to fly around the world in a solar powered airplane. The aim of their mission was not only to become the first to achieve such a feat, but to demonstrate the power of renewable energy and clean technology.

Solar Impulse 2 landed in Hawaii on July 3, completing the longest leg of the journey in 118 hours, or five days and five nights. But the 35,000 km odyssey has stalled at the half way point for the time being. Over-insulation of the lithium ion batteries caused irreparable damage during the marathon flight and, having missed the weather window to continue, the pair face a lengthy wait before they can take to the skies again in April 2016.

Undeterred, Piccard is using the time to continue with his efforts to raise awareness of issues ahead of the COP21 climate change talks in Paris in December. Utilities Middle East caught up with him at the Global Solar Leaders Summit in Dubai last month, where he delivered an inspirational speech and became an official ambassador of the Middle East Solar Industry Association (MESIA).

The aim of Solar Impulse 2 is not just to break records or achieve a world first but to raise awareness of clean technologies and green energy. Can you elaborate on that message?

Very often when you speak to governments, people or corporations around the world, they believe that renewable energy and clean tech is something expensive, that it threatens our lifestyle and economic development. We want to show with Solar Impulse that it’s exactly the opposite. We want to show that you can achieve incredible things with renewable energy, things that cannot be achieved with conventional energy. The crossing of the first part of the Pacific Ocean took five days and five nights, so you can fly longer with no fuel than with fuel. That is an important message.

It’s also a vision of the future for our society, where people will not only consume energy that others have produced, but produce and consume their own energy. This makes them more autonomous and also allows industry to develop and sell that technology. It’s important to show that renewable energy and clean technology can be profitable, will create jobs and help develop our economies. If the protection of the environment is expensive nobody will do it. But clean technologies have existed for a few years, they are profitable, and this is what governments and industry need to understand. This is what we are trying to promote.

Why did you decide to start your trip in Abu Dhabi?

I have long-lasting connections with Abu Dhabi. The UAE is an oil producer which is diversifying into clean technologies and renewable energies so I think starting here was the perfect symbol. Our goal is not to attack what exists, but to support new ways of doing things. Solar Impulse is a project that wants to promote very strong symbols and this is one we wanted to promote.

So you think this region is heading down the right path?

I come often to this region and what I notice is, Europe speaks and this region acts. Abu Dhabi and Dubai now are doing a really great job and setting an example. Europe and America need to go from words to actions. I’m really working very hard on the political side to have economic leaders understand that they have to support this energy transition and not fight against it.


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