Wired, by Jason Paur, Gas2.org, by Christopher DeMorro, and MATIC (Dec. 26, 2012) — Do solar electric vehicles have a future…in the sky? Some innovative aero-engineers seem to think so. The Solar Impulse team had a busy December in the U.S., but that hasn’t included the ’round-the-world flight they had hoped for by now. Instead, co-founders Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg have been meeting with government agencies, politicians and benefactors in hopes of setting up a California to New York flight with their solar-powered airplane, slated to take place next year.
Having already completed an inter-continental flight from Spain to Morocco earlier in the year, the Solar Impulse team is now setting their eyes on the birthplace of flight; America. Their lightweight solar airplane has a 200-foot wingspan and is powered by four 10-horsepower electric motors that give it a cruising speed of just 60 to 70 mph.
Doesn’t sound like much. But given that the Solar Impulse plane is powered by electricity pulled from the sun, Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, leaders of this project, deserve a fair amount of credit. Their ambitions to fly all the way around the world may have to wait a bit longer. But a transcontinental flight across the U.S. would drum up a lot of publicity and excitement for the world-hopping HB-SIA solar plane, which will feature an even bigger wingspan and a pressurized cockpit.
The Switzerland-based team has the support of the Swiss government, and Ambassador Manuel Sager said the mountain nation is ready to help make the trans-continental U.S. flight possible.
“Switzerland is very proud to be a partner in the next endeavor of Solar Impulse,” Ambassador Sager said at an embassy event in Washington, D.C. “As a country we share the values of the project: technological innovation, competence and entrepreneurial expertise.”
The Solar Impulse team said they are excited to complete a flight in the birth nation of aviation. There aren’t a lot of details being released just yet, though they hope to make the flight in “early summer of 2013.”
Solar Impulse co-founders and pilots Piccard and Borschberg have flown their first airplane, HB-SIA, on several occasions since the first hop three years ago. Since 2009 they have flown the aircraft for a full day/night, 24+ hour cycle, and an intercontinental flight between Europe and North Africa (pictured above).
The airplane has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 787, but weighs about the same as a standard SUV. Its electric motors are powered by batteries and the solar cells that cover the top of the wings.
They eventually plan to make an around-the-world flight using an updated, and larger solar powered airplane known as HB-SIB. The new model will have a roomier, pressurized cockpit allowing the pilot to nap, and will have a wingspan of more than 260 feet.
The team originally had hoped to make an around-the-world flight by 2013, but they are currently hoping for a 2015 flight. HB-SIB is currently under construction at Solar Impulse headquarters in Switzerland.
In June 2012, the Solar Impulse made its historic 2,500-kilometer (1,550-mile) journey from Switzerland to Madrid, then Rabat and Ouarzazate, Morocco, site of a World Bank-financed solar energy project where Morocco is building the world’s largest solar-thermal plant to harness the power of the Sahara sun for North Africa and potentially Europe.
Last month, Morocco secured additional European financing for the project that now totals more than $400 million, and signed a $1 billion deal with Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power International to supply Morocco with electricity from the 160-megawatt plant for 25 years. It is the first of five sites that will ultimately produce up to 2,000 megawatts of renewable, clean energy and create many jobs in the area.
“I hope that Europe will learn from Morocco’s example,” said Pilot Bertrand Piccard after landing on the return trip to Madrid last summer. “It’s precisely during times of global crisis that there needs to be an investment in renewable energies and energy savings, providing us with what’s necessary to sustain employment, purchasing power and a positive trade balance. Thank you Morocco.”
Mustapha Bakkoury, President of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN) said the solar plane was playing an important role in raising awareness about solar energy’s potential to reduce global dependence on oil. “We share a common message with Solar Impulse.” He said Morocco plans to be producing solar energy when Solar Impulse makes its round-the-world tour.
For more information on Solar Impulse & Morocco’s solar energy plans:
- Solar Impulse team: http://live.solarimpulse.com/
- Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN): http://www.masen.org.ma/index.php?Id=undefined&lang=en (English language available)
- Morocco’s Agence Nationale pour le Développement des Energies Renouvelables et de l’Efficacité Energétique (ADEREE): http://www.aderee.ma/ (English language available).