Solar Impulse: advancement, or else?

The news are filled with joy now that Solar Impulse 2, the huge electric-powered glider which landed at Moffett Field in the San Francisco Bay area yesterday.

Let’s reflect on this achievement.

Solar Impulse is roughly one year late in reaching the Pacific coast of the US. Technical issues with the batteries and the rapidly approaching winter, with short days and poor weather in order to keep the batteries charged for long flights, grounded the project in Hawaii last year.

It took 62 hours to fly from Hawaii to California. That is about 10 times longer than the usual jetliner flight on the same route.

The aircraft carries only one pilot, it is not pressurized so the pilot must have its own oxygen mask, and is not heated so the pilot must wear a very thick suit to avoid freezing during the night.

There is no additional payload permitted onboard the aircraft, not even a luggage would fit the very delicate power budget that they have on this huge glider.

During the day the sun produces energy from the many solar cells installed on the top of the wing surface, and the aircraft is propelled by four electric motors which allow for a very slow speed and some modest climb performance, in order to build up altitude.

During the night the aircraft becomes a pure glider. There is not enough energy to keep all the instrumentation active, let alone have an engine spin to produce enough power to keep the aircraft in level flight.

So at night the aircraft is in a continuous descent at maximum performance, which means an even slower speed in order to maximise distance versus loss of altitude.

While no oil-based product have been used to propel the aircraft in the air, the aircraft is heavily based on oil-derived products, from the plastics used to the metals and fiberglass and composite materials, all either based on oil and/or produced using oil or coal as the main fuel for the industrial process.

And I am not even counting the amount of oil used for the support team, which follows and precedes Solar Impulse in order to prepare the required infrastructure on the ground for the next slow hop.

Is this the kind of future that we are looking forward to live in a world without oil? Taking 10 times more to do something we can easily do today for much cheaper, bringing with us luggage, friends and family, in an environment where we can relax, take a nap, have a meal, watch a movie, and even use the Internet these days.

People will say that the Wright brothers started from a very similar situation, and that shooting down Solar Impulse like this does not allow for improvement of the technology.

I beg to differ. The Wright brothers invented powered flight. It had never been done before. Anything related to flight done after the Wright brothers was an improvement, an optimization, a new material, a new engine, a new type of technology which allowed for either smaller, faster, lighter, denser or cheaper travelling for the goods and passengers.

Then Solar Impulse came. Solar Impulse is now giving us a glimpse into a terrifying future, a future in which time will be wasted, money will be wasted, space onboard will be wasted, and thus air travel will return back to what it was before jet fuel made flight become cheaper and cheaper, and available to the masses.

Flight will be once again only available to rich people with a lot of time to spare.

This is hardly progress. This is involution. And all of this is happening for simply one thing. The false belief that oil is dirty, and that we can live in the same way we do today without oil.