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Is this solar-powered airplane the future of green travel?

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 9:47am
Allegra Sparta, Contributor

The Solar Impulse team is at it again! This is the team that flew the first solar-powered plane capable of flying around the clock coast-to-coast across the United States in 2013. They just unveiled that plane’s successor, the aptly named Solar Impulse 2, which has an even greater destiny for 2015: to circumnavigate the globe.

Now, what would a global trip be without some oceans to cross? A strictly overland flight seems too easy for such an advanced aircraft. Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, Magellans of the air, need a challenge. They’ll have to spend extra time and energy planning the sections of their journey that cross over the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Any error here may prove to be catastrophic. Or at least inspire a Lost spinoff.

Herein lies the problem. Solar Impulse’s journey isn’t merely a performance novelty. If this trip is successful, it could solidify solar power’s role in the travel industry. A lot is riding on the pair’s capability to complete a journey of this magnitude. Solar power, and other green technology, is at a very pivotal point in its history, especially for transportation. It doesn’t matter which side you align with on the great global warming debate — we can all agree that our fossil fuels aren’t going to be around forever.

Pursuing green transportation technology like the Solar Impulse seems like a no-brainer, but there are many problems associated with solar power and questions that may arise. Flying across oceans presents many serious concerns — not unique to Piccard and Borschberg’s situation — and the pilots planned this leg of the journey extensively. They will rely on energy conservation to safely land across the oceans. Any future solar plane endeavors will need to consider these same issues.

To conserve this solar “fuel,” the team explains that the aircraft will fly along at a sluggish 85 mph overseas. Air travel is supposed to save us time, but my compact car can easily hit 90 on an open highway. Where is the time-saving incentive that persuades millions to hop on a jet? I have a fear of airplanes, and travelling at such a slow speed would be agonizing for others like me as well as those strapped for time. It will probably only be wealthy and retired plane-enthusiasts or rich hippies filling up the seats of a solar plane once they’re ready for consumer use.

It may seem like I have a negative view on solar planes, and solar and other green technology in general, but I really can’t wait for the day that they are easily accessible to the average consumer (and those with a paltry writer’s income!). It seems to be the same conundrum that prevents people from sticking to a healthy and organic diet. We all know organic salads are better for our bodies, and solar energy and electric cars are better for the environment. But a Big Mac costs a lot less and using fossil fuels is just so much better — for time, convenience, and our wallets.

I hope that I’ll be able to see the perfection and implementation of solar-powered transportation in my lifetime or at least someday be wealthy enough to invest in it.

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