Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Hippies and socialites seldom find common ground, but for some reason both groups seem to have an unnatural fascination with circumnavigating the globe in the most asinine ways possible. European inventor, adventurer, socialite, and psychologist Bertrand Piccard
(how's that for aristocratic branding?) recently re-announced his solar plane initiative. Solar-Impulse
, as Dr. Piccard calls her, will take to the skies for preliminary testing by 2006 and go around the world (in three big hops) by 2010.
To accomplish this feat, he has assembled a team of private investors, large corporations, and governmental agencies. Unfortunately, Bertrand and Co. don't have much to work with. The amount of power available from the sun is approximately equal to that used by Wilbur and Orville Wright to power their flights at Kitty Hawk. In order to maximize every last bit of this power, team Impulse has made the plane light (2 tons as compared to 570 for the new Airbus A380), gigantic (on par with the A380 at about 80 meters across), and cozy (room for 1 lightly clothed person compared to 800 for the A380).
At a top speed of 60mph, a passenger capacity of 1, and a flight pattern that involves slowly descending from 30,000 feet to 10,000 feet every time it gets dark, the Solar-Impulse poses no real solution to the damaging environmental impacts of international jet travel
. The current fleet of American commercial aircraft carries about 650 million passengers per year, using 20 billion gallons of fuel, spewing as many pollutants as about 4 million cars, and producing about 3.5% of global total radiative forcing (a measure of climate change).
And yet Piccard's mission is not without merit. His impulse to unite government, academia and private enterprise in pursuit of a common and far-reaching technological goal recalls Kennedy's pursuit of the lunar landing. As both Thomas Friedman and Dennis Kucinich have pointed out (in a most unfortunate way
), this kind of initiative promises the most expedient solution to fossil fuel dependence and should be a national, if not global, priority. If we were able to get to the moon in less than a decade and if Bertrand Piccard can build a solar-powered, globe circling airplane in less than a decade, there is no reason that we can't develop a path to petroleum independence in the same amount of time.
As we follow this socialite toward the sun and around the world, though, it is worth keeping the lessons of his accidental allies, the hippies, in mind. Where Piccard claims that "the future of our planet will evolve through the development of new technologies rather than as a result of...reducing our mobility and being forced to lower our quality of life," the hippies realize that it's not that simple. As Piccard himself makes so abundantly clear, the only way we can accommodate jet travel is with jet fuel. Period. The solar power equivalent of the Wright Brothers' plane simply will not get you to Europe in time for tea, no matter how light your plane is.