Five years ago I landed from Solar Impulse 2 in Abu Dhabi, after flying around the world entirely powered by solar energy, for the first time in aviation history.
It was also a milestone in the history of energy and technology. Solar Impulse was an experimental aircraft weighing as much as a family car and using 17,248 solar cells. It was a flying laboratory, loaded with tremendous technologies that made it possible to produce renewable energy, store it and use it when needed in the most efficient way.
The time has come for us to use technology again to address the climate crisis that affects us all. As we enter the most important decade of climate action – and most likely our last chance to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – we need to ensure that clean technologies only become acceptable standards. These technologies now exist and can be applied beneficially at this critical moment.
Hundreds of clean-tech solutions exist that protect the environment in a profitable way,
Here are just four innovations from our solar powered aircraft that the market can now launch very late.
From insulating cabins to insulating our homes
The building sector is one of the world’s largest energy consumers. Further to the dependence on carbon-heavy fuels for heating and cooling, poor insulation and associated energy losses are among the main reasons.
Inside the cockpit of the Solar Impulse, insulation was critical for flying at very high altitudes. Covestro, one of our official partners, Developed an ultra-lightweight and insulating material. Cockpit insulation performance was 10% higher than standards at the time, as the pores in the insulating foam were 40% smaller, reaching a micrometer scale. Thanks to its very low density of less than 40 kilograms per cubic meter, the cockpit was ultra-lightweight.
This technique and many others exist. Now we need to ensure that all the market players are motivated to make high quality building insulation their standard operating procedure.
From driving electric aircraft to promoting clean mobility
Solar Impulse was first and foremost an electric airplane when it flew 43,000 km without a single drop of fuel. Its four electric motors had a record-beating efficiency of 97%, far ahead of the pathetic capacity of 27% of standard thermal engines. This means that they used only 3% of the energy versus for combustion propulsion. Today, electric vehicle sales are increasing. According to the International Energy Agency, when the solar impulse landed in 2016, there were about 1.2 million electric cars on the road; The figure now exceeds 5 million.
Nevertheless, this boom is far from adequate. Power sockets are still far from being replaced by petrol pumps. The transport sector still accounts for one-fourth of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Electrification must happen very quickly to reduce CO2 emissions from our tailpipes. To do this, governments must promote the adoption of electric vehicles through clear tax incentives, diesel and petrol engine restrictions, and major infrastructure investments. 2021 should be the year that puts us on the one-way road for zero-emission vehicles and puts the thermal engine to a dead end.
An aircraft microgrid may work for off-grid communities
Flying for several days and nights, reaching a theoretically endless flight capability, Solar Impulse relied on batteries that stored energy collected during the day and to run their engines at night Used to use it.
What could have been possible with small-scale Si2 should guide future proofing power-generation systems made entirely of renewable energy. Microgrids, used in Si2, meanwhile, may benefit off-grid systems in remote communities or energy islands, allowing them to eliminate diesel or other carbon-heavy fuels already in place today.
By and large, we are looking at smart grids. If all the “stupid grids” are replaced by smart grids, it will allow cities, for example, to manage the production, storage, distribution and consumption of energy and cut the peaks in energy demand that CO2 Will reduce emissions dramatically.
Energy efficiency in air and on land
Solar Impulse’s philosophy was to save energy instead of trying to produce more. This is why the relatively small amount of solar energy we collected became sufficient to fly day and night. All airplane parameters including wings, aerodynamics, speed, flight profile and energy systems were designed to minimize energy loss.
Unfortunately, this approach still stands against most of our energy use inefficiencies today. Even though IEA found an energy efficiency improvement of an estimated 13% between 2000 and 2017, it is not enough. We need bolder action by policy makers to encourage investors. One of the best ways to do this is to implement strict energy efficiency standards.
For example, California has set efficiency standards on buildings and appliances, such as consumer electronics and home appliances, that have estimated to have saved consumers more than $ 100 billion in utility bills. These measures are as good for the environment as they are for the economy.
Si2 was the future; Now, it should define the current
When we used all these different innovations to manufacture solar impulses, they were groundbreaking and futuristic. Today, they should define the present; They should be ideal. Next to the technologies described above, hundreds of clean-tech solutions exist that protect the environment in a profitable way, many of which have received solar impulse efficient solution labels.
Just as for Si2 technologies, we must now ensure that they enter the mainstream market. The faster we measure them, the faster we will set our economy on track to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and achieve sustainable economic growth.