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3 August 2015

The record-breaking solar plane is grounded – is there still hope for clean energy?

In spite of Solar Impulse 2's problems, solar-powered flight is down but not out.

By India Bourke

“Andre can you hear us? It’s Conor at the Mission Control Centre…” – no answer. Conor Lennon – broadcast presenter for Solar Impulse’s attempt to circle the world by solar-powered plane – tried again. And a third time.

In the glass-encased control room, flight director Raymond Clerc’s lips press against his fist. Finally, the pilot’s Swiss accent crackles through the satellite waves, into the city’s grid, and out of the TV monitor behind Conor: the plane had made it safely across the international date line. A grin of relief escaped Clerc’s face – but it wasn’t to last.

At the afternoon’s debrief his words were already cautionary: “I must stress the situation is not as positive as your reports suggest: we have a pilot that is starting to show signs of fatigue, we have battery that is a little low… All the systems are stressed, so please be aware the flight is not over. It. Is. Not. Over”.

A month later and his caution has proven well founded. On the 3 July the plane touched down in Hawaii, completing the Japan-US leg of its journey and setting a new record for solar powered flight. However the plane’s batteries, technicians would later discover, were cooked, overheated by fast ascents and too much insulation. Repairs will now ground the plane until spring.

As the team seeks a further €20m of funding (in addition to the €150m spent since 2003), a question hovers: is it worth it? The prospects of solar flight becoming mainstream are still way off. So is this stunt no more than a Promethean dream – from those who believe we can invent our way, God-like, out of the climate crisis? Or can a little dreaming go a long way?

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Inside the Mission Control the atmosphere is as tense as Titanic, as idealistic as Interstellar. And, like so many great epics of discovery, the setting also drips with dollars. Out of the briefing room’s window lies Monaco’s playground of millionaires and mega yachts. Inside, next to a wall of flatscreen TVs, sits a Moet-Hennessey sponsored bar. Prince Albert, Monaco’s reigning monarch and son of silver-screen actress Grace Kelly, comes to view every take-off and landing; apparently not just a sponsor, but “really a fan”.

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The project thus symbolises a particular approach to environmentalism: one based on a faith that technological innovation will maintain our energy-intensive lifestyles. Allowing us not just to keeping on buying but to buy even more: to buy “green”. Unsurprisingly it’s one that big business is helping make centre stage in environmental debates. Not least since they often help pay for the stage itself. 20 per cent of the finance behind this Winter’s UN Climate Conference in Paris will come from private enterprise, including AirFrance and EDF, firms which emit vast amounts of carbon.

Corporate confidence that we can master nature and save the world goes back a long way, to the largest-ever act of government expenditure in peacetime in fact: the Sixties moon landings. It was here, in the Apollo Program’s breakthroughs, bravura, and billion-dollar budgets that our faith in technology really came of age. The mission inspired a raft of innovation, from memory foam to the modern microchip. And it wasn’t just new gadgets being born: it was brand USA itself. As the first ever truly global media event, 1969 stamped the States, and its manufacturers, as open for business – for good.

Solar Impulse has taken this “Apollo Spirit” firmly under its wing. Kitted out in matching navy uniforms, the team assemble behind NASA-style rows of desks, whilst livestream TV broadcasts their progress to the world. The sponsors too are quick to spot the connection. Luxury Swiss brand, Omega, draws on its own history as the first watch on the moon: “With Solar Impulse, our energies are refocused from the moon to the sun. Omega is still a partner in mankind’s greatest dreams”.

Yet there was also a dark side to the landings, one that questioned the wisdom of bank-rolling business above improvements to basic public welfare. As Ebony magazine quipped at the time: the landings were, “One small step for The Man” – a vision of progress that had left too many behind in the slums.

The same criticism can be applied to Solar Impulse: that solar flight is a diversion from more mundane but helpful solutions, such as divestment from fossil fuels and re-investment in green infrastructure. A study by the US Department of Energy argued that clean technology could already meet 80 per cent of America’s electricity needs. That they don’t is down to a failure of distribution, not innovation. At the moment, too few of us can afford to swoon our Patagonia-clad way down Whole Food’s shopping aisles and into Tesla’s electric cars.  

Underneath its corporate baggage, however, this waif of a plane is out to provide a symbol of hope. It wants to put a secure ecosystem at the heart of the agenda, for business and for government – and to do it through engaging global belief in change.

And it’s working. Each time Solar Impulse touches down in a new country, the national media lights up. In India, the story dominated the front pages for five days in a row. The railways minister even seized on the plane’s presence to propose mounting solar panels on train roofs. Meanwhile, through “paper-plane” video sharing, and work in schools from Toulouse to Tansania, the project is reaching audiences beyond the plane’s flight-path.

Yin Fang, 25, from China’s Zhejiang province, runs the Chinese element of the project’s webteam. He became involved with Solar Impulse after taking the “radical” decision to study for a Masters in Geneva. Thanks to his work the project now has over 140,000 followers on Weibo, China’s version of twitter, with interest “not just from industry professionals but from all walks of life”. Like Yin Fang, the plane has set out to break down, or rather soar right over, the divides between nations – replacing economic competition with a network of care.

This autumn sees the launch of the Global Apollo Programme: a green research initiative that wants governments to match, in today’s money, the sums spent putting men on the moon. At a time of increasing austerity, requests to increase green spending are unlikely to go down smoothly. “Dream on” might be the response of some, but in Solar Impulse there’s a reminder that we can re-fashion the Apollo spirit – and its corporate support – for a more connected, caring age. Flying by Yeats’s Cloths of Heaven, it reminds us to: “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”.