COP21 Interview: Reliving the tension of Solar Impulse's round-the-world attempt

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The first half of the Solar Impulse round-the-world attempt saw pilot Andre Borschberg break the world record for the longest solo flight. Powered by the sun and welcomed by governments across Asia and beyond, the journey has been one of uplifting successes, technological breakthroughs, tense standoffs and, ultimately, a message of hope that renewable energy can change the world.

pv magazine: You’ve come a long way – physically and metaphorically – since the Solar Impulse round-the-world flight began in Abu Dhabi in March. Do you think that people are now beginning to understand the message you are trying to spread?

Andre Borschberg: I think they do. The presence of solar is important, and it’s the same for applications on the ground – the message is that Solar Impulse is bringing together energy efficiency on one side, and intelligent use of renewables on the other, which of course for us means solar energy.

This message is getting through very well. During the journey we stopped in many countries, and this was an advantage. In some ways it is a dream to make the flight non-stop around the world, but by stopping in various countries it means there are opportunities to interact with people on the ground. We did this extensively in India and China, for example – two large countries that are interested in our project. So the response and the coverage has been excellent.

Some people still argue the line that a solar-powered plane will not be a commercial reality for many decades, so the entire endeavor is pointless. Do you find that this misconception of what you are trying to achieve is still prevalent?

Borschberg: From some people, yes. But the majority understand that this is simply the first step. Since the time of the Wright Brothers and Lindberg aviation has always had to explain that what is feasible in an airplane can be done much more quickly and easily on the ground. So some people still need this explanation, but for others the message is being received clearly.

In China they get it. They are keen on all types of solutions – solar, wind and energy efficiency – to combat the terrible pollution situation they have in the cities right now.

And were you warmly welcomed across China when you were there?

Borschberg: Very much so. We began talking to the Chinese authorities two years ago in order to gain authorization. We were not sure how they would react. Our airplane is very special, we fly very high, and not exactly in a way that a transport airplane flies. We need special regulations and authorizations. And at the same time we wanted to find out if China would be interested in communicating the technology, and they have been. We secured partnerships with official constituencies in China that promote science and technology, particularly clean tech, and they helped to provide contact with the media, and especially CCTV, which is the largest broadcaster in China. This was important.

Abu Dhabi was the launch point, and will also hopefully be the finish point for the successful completion of your journey. Could you explain the role the UAE has played in helping this project come to fruition?

Borschberg: The collaboration with the UAE made sense from two perspectives. One, operationally, because we wanted to cross India and be in China very early in the season. It was the best starting point, and is a good ending point to complete the journey.

Number two, the UAE is extremely active in sustainability and renewable energy and technologies. Masdar is a showcase, but they also invest heavily in research, so it made a lot of sense for us to be there.

We’re now here in Paris for the COP21 summit. Speaking more broadly, how can this conference help nurture a wider realization of – not only what is at stake if we do not find ways to use more renewable energy – but also what is feasible?

Borschberg: I am extremely happy to see that everybody agrees about what needs to be done, which was not the case in Copenhagen in 2009. From a political point of view, it is no longer a question of "do we have a problem?" The question now is "how do we move forward?" There have been great partnerships between administrations and private institutions, and that is extremely positive. There is a push, there is no longer a resistance. Now, private institutions are asking governments to do something.

We have a long way to go in terms of keeping temperature increases below 2 degrees. The INDCs pledged won’t get us there, and there are a lot of countries that will increase their emissions over the next few years, many of them being the larger countries. So I am worried that time is against us, and the ship has huge inertia and is difficult to turn. It turns slowly. But I am happy with the state of mind.

You’ve said that it is hard to convince people to make changes in their behavior. But sometimes – as we’ve seen with Elon Musk’s successes with Tesla and the Powerwall – great marketing and a great story can sow the seeds of change. So bearing this in mind, how vital is it that the Solar Impulse mission succeeds?

Borschberg: It is extremely important because we want to show that the impossible is possible. It is a great inspiration for the younger generation. All of the young people we meet look at the airplane with wide-eyes. These guys will make the next steps on this journey. We are simply preparing that path. There is a lot left to learn. We know the world. It is not about discovering new places but new ways to do things. If this project can serve that, inspire the younger generation – just like how I was inspired as a boy to follow my dreams – then it’s mission accomplished.