What Solar Impulse Means to the Energy Sector

Today is a big day for solar energy as the world's first solar-powered airplane completed its circumnavigation of the globe. The journey marked the first time a plane has circled the globe without the need for fuel. Solar Impulse 2, the name of the craft that made the trip, was flown over 21,000 miles by two pilots rotating in the cockpit. After layovers in five different continents, the lightweight plane landed where it started in Abu Dhabi. Despite being wide than a Boeing 747, the solar-powered craft weighs only 5,000 pounds according to WIRED. Four 17.4-horsepower motors account for most of the weight, but when equipped with 17,000 photovoltaic panels, the machine becomes capable of flying at an average speed of about 47 mph. Yes, this plane is still painfully slow, but it introduces renewable energy potential to the air. The motors generated well over 10 MWh of energy an impressive feat that compares to some systems on the ground. Proving that energy can be successfully created in transit while propelling a weight through the air safely will boost the prospects for solar air cargo and even solar commercial flights.

Some big names in business flew behind the two pilots in their grueling journey that lasted well over 2 months. Google, the tech-savvy search engine, supported the project as an official partner. The firm helped promote the flight with the assortment of Google platforms such as Google+ and Google Earth. In fact, the pilots took part in an occasional Google Hangout as a way to generate buzz on social media. In addition to multimedia support, Google provided some financial backing. Nestle's research segment provided dietary support as they were responsible for feeding the pilots for the entirety of the journey. Covestro, one of the world's largest polymer companies, showed their support by designing and constructing the lightweight systems on the plane. The German energy giant, Siemens, used its engineering technology from its PLM Software branch to optimize the design of aircraft. Most of these companies stood to gain nothing from the completion of the historic feat, but individually, their contributions could be indications of their involvement in the future of solar flight. Covestro's interest, for example, might go beyond social responsibility as lightweight materials will be a necessity as this technology continues to develop. It is also interesting to note that three mission partners came from the booming renewable industries of China and India, two countries which will account for a major share of renewable energy growth in the future.

So where from here? Obviously, the only direction is up (literally). Like Wilbur and Orville's first flight at Kitty Hawk, Piccard and Borschberg's feat will revolutionize the aerospace industry and encourage developments in this renewable energy niche. The flight of the Solar Impulse 2 speaks especially to progress made in the quality of photovoltaic panels. The company that supplied the technology, SunPower Corp, has a lot to be proud of as the successful journey will become a milestone in its photovoltaic development going forward. Participation in this project should catapult the solar company to new opportunities in solar-powered aviation in the future. In the same way, Covestro's lightweight polymers will be invited to the party that is not too far away. Another interesting company to mention amidst the celebration of Solar Impulse 2's landing is Solar Flight Inc, headed by President Eric Raymond. The small firm has already introduced four solar powered airplanes to the public including its latest, the SUNSTAR. The aircraft, which came out almost two years ago, flies at high altitudes and can act as an unmanned drone or a piloted vehicle. The project demonstrates advances in weight efficiency and solar power capacity and leads to plans of an even more impressive craft.

solar electric airplane

The picture above is a rendering of a 6-seat solar transporter that Solar Flight has posted on its website. There is no signal as to whether the project has been started or how much progress has been made, but any kind of prototype or evidence of headway should interest any major names in the aerospace industry. Boeing, for example, has been fidgeting with its own interpretations of the fuel-free craft. GeekWire reports on some of the designs, all of which are limited to unmanned devices. Technology that has been developed by the team behind Solar Flight would be especially valuable to a big commercial name like Boeing. Speaking of the team behind Solar Flight, guess who shows up again...SunPower. It's clear that this company has its eyes on solar flight and may find partners in companies like Boeing, Facebook, and Google who are considering prototypes for solar commercial flights and free internet access to remote parts of the world (see Internet.org). The successful circumnavigation of globe in the Solar Impulse 2 is a feat that should be praised. In the solar power industry, it should be heralded as a great milestone that rivals the creation of the solar powered car. Investors should be keen to watch out for opportunities in this sector of the renewable energy industry. Something tells be SunPower is not finished creating solar-powered planes.


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