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Solar pioneer

Bertrand Piccard is on a mission to demonstrate the power of renewable energy.

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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.

Solar Impulse 2 uses some pioneering technologies. Tell us about them.

We have the latest technology and we push it to the limit of its application. That’s why the plane is so big and so light. We have a wing span bigger than a 747 but it’s lighter than a family car. That requires optimisation of the materials. We have 97% efficiency in our electric motors compared to a car which has 27%. We have 16 LED landing lamps, each one made of around 20 light bulbs, and altogether they use 100 watts which is comparable to two standard lights you’d have in your house. For the insulation we use incredibly thin foam that is so efficient that it could be used for houses.

When we speak of clean technology it’s not only about producing energy, it’s mainly to save energy, and this is where the money will be made. It’s not only good for the consumer but it’s good for all the industries that are producing these technologies. There are lots of technologies but they are not implemented. It needs to be implemented and it needs to be coupled with renewable energy, because renewables will not be enough.

Aren’t these technologies costly to implement?

But you have a good return on your investment. For example I did it for my house. I insulated the roof, the windows and I changed my heating system from oil to heat pumps. I cut the cost of heating my house in three. That’s fantastic and people need to know it. We need governments to encourage people to take this direction. Middle East governments are starting to be aware of it. Dubai has decided to invest massively in solar power. Abu Dhabi invests not only there but in other countries. Now the rest of the world has to follow.

Is it possible to divest from fossil fuels completely?

I don’t think we should ever point our finger at oil and say these are the bad guys. Oil has allowed our civilisation to develop. If we have this standard of living it’s thanks to oil, so let’s remember that. Solar Impulse is built out of oil! All the carbon fibre, the foams, the composite materials, the glues, everything comes from petrochemistry. The mistake is to burn oil, because we need it for other things. You’re burning money.

Do you think we could have solar powered commercial airplanes in the future?

I would be crazy to say yes and stupid to say no. Because today we don’t have the technology to transport 200 people in a solar airplane. But the Wright Brothers in 1903 did not have that ability either, but it happened. The goal of pioneers like Andre and I is to open the door to another way. Then maybe industry will develop new technologies that we have no idea of today, exactly as happened in the early days of aviation.

What have you been doing while waiting to restart the mission?

I’m working a lot for COP21 [climate change talks in Paris in December] and also with the government of France to elaborate a message that will be more encouraging than just saying that climate change is a big expensive problem. We have to change that message to one about profitable solutions and opportunities for industrial and economic development. So I’m doing a lot of this and meeting politicians. I’m not in a political party myself which means that everybody can listen to me. I also give lots of interviews and speeches.

Was the mission timed to coincide with the build-up to COP21?

We were hoping to finish the flight before COP21 but that won’t be the case now. It’s an experimental project and we had no benchmark, nobody could tell us how to do it. We made a mistake with the thermal insulation of the batteries. We insulated too much and as a result the batteries overheated during the last flight which lasted five days and five nights from Japan to Hawaii. The technology of the batteries was perfect but we misused them so now we have to replace the batteries and continue next year.

What was the longest leg of the journey that you flew and what kind of mental and physical toll did it take on you?

The longest leg was flown by Andre from Nagoya to Hawaii and it took 118 hours. The longest that I flew was 22 hours in China. We both trained 72 hours in a flight simulator – three days and three nights – sleeping 20 minutes at a time. Andre trained with yoga, I used self-hypnosis and we were fine. I was really looking forward to making the four day flight from Hawaii to mainland US.

What’s going through your mind when you’re up there?

What goes through my mind is the privilege of flying in the first and only airplane of perpetual endurance. When I fly a normal plane I see the fuel gauge going down, and here I see the energy gauge going up. And at the end of the day I have more energy than when I took off. And I know I can fly through the night and continue the following day. It’s like flying in a miracle.

When do you expect to get underway again and are you confident you can make it all the way back to Abu Dhabi next year?

Next April. Inshallah! We have to be ambitious in the goal and modest in the result. It’s experimental. If it was easy to do somebody else would have done it.

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