Solar Impulse 2 has flown from New York to Spain in the latest leg of its historic trip around the world. It did not use a single drop of fuel. Will we soon see the end of fossil fuels?
During his four-day journey over the Atlantic Ocean, Bertrand Piccard spotted whales breaking through the waves beneath him and an iceberg which had floated down from the Arctic.
He was sitting, unable to move, in the tiny cockpit of Solar Impulse 2, a lightweight plane which is entirely fuelled by the solar cells covering its 72m-wide wings. While the sun shone during the day, the plane’s batteries would recharge as he climbed up 29,000 feet above the water. At night, he would glide 5,000 feet down again to conserve as much power as possible.
Solar Impulse 2 is now nearing the end of its historic bid, which began in March 2015, to become the first solar-powered plane to travel around the world. The Atlantic was not its longest trip — that was the Pacific — but it was the most symbolic, says Piccard. New transportation technologies always try to cross the Atlantic: ‘the first steamboats, the first aeroplane, the first balloons, the first airships and, today, it is the first solar-powered aeroplane.’
There are now just one or two flights left, to reach the plane’s starting point in Abu Dhabi. But the goal has not really been to ‘change aviation’, as it was for Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927. Instead, it is to ‘inspire people’ to embrace renewable technologies.
Global warming activists will be grateful: 2015 was the hottest year on record, and May 2016 was the 13th month in a row to become the warmest ever recorded. If something is not done soon, humanity will lose its chance to stop global average temperatures rising by more than 2°C, the point which scientists agree would be ‘catastrophic’.
But it is not too late, say campaigners. The recent collapse of oil prices means that energy companies, already with debts of up to$3 trillion, are at risk of going bankrupt. Instead of searching for more fuel in increasingly risky places, it makes far more sense to start investing in cleaner alternatives.
Could we be on the verge of a world without fossil fuels?
Easy being green?
No, say some. Industrial countries were built on fossil fuels, and poorer countries still need them for growth. Replacing them will take decades and renewable energy is not ready — Solar Impulse 2 has taken well over a year on a journey that normal planes can do in 50 hours. A fossil fuel-free future is pure fantasy.
Yes! Solar Impulse 2 is proof of humanity’s amazing ingenuity. In 1903 the Wright brothers’ first flight was an extraordinary feat of engineering — but the technology improved quickly, and now around 100,000 planes fly every day. It makes financial and environmental sense to use renewable energy; the sooner we get to work, the better.