The departure on Friday of a solar-powered plane with no backup fuel from San Francisco's Moffet Field in the first leg of a cross-country US trip is a dramatic demonstration of how far solar energy has come. The HB-SIA Solar Impulse arrived in Phoenix, Arizona, early yesterday morning (US time) after a 19-hour flight. The plane is able to fly long after the sun goes down or in cloudy weather because the nearly 12,000 solar cells on its wings charge an array of lithium-ion batteries in gondolas that hang below the wings, and these power four electric motors. The craft is being piloted by Bertrand Piccard, the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon in 1999 and a co-founder of the Clean Generation Initiative to encourage the adoption of sustainable energy technologies, and a pair of Swiss pilots. In the coming weeks the plane will make flights to Dallas, St Louis, Washington DC and finally New York City amidst a PR campaign to promote solar energy.
While it's a safe bet the aviation industry isn't going to turn to solar power for commercial aircraft any time soon, this flight and previous ones by the team should dispel the notion that solar is not viable because the sun doesn't shine at night or on cloudy days. While the sort of lithium-ion battery assembly used for this flight may not be either practical or cost-effective on a large scale at this time, the energy storage problem associated with solar energy can almost certainly be overcome if adequate research and resources are thrown at it.
But the real message coming from the landmark flight of the Solar Impulse is that solar has arrived and is able to take a significant load off fossil-fuel driven power sources right now - if it's taken seriously and the necessary changes are made to allow its input.
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