Swiss psychiatrist and pilot Bertrand Piccard embarked on a mission in March to fly around the world in a completely solar-powered aircraft, the Solar Impulse 2. This is the first manned zero-fuel aircraft to attempt a flight of this magnitude.
The trip was forecasted to take several months, and, currently, the aircraft is in China, preparing to cross the Pacific Ocean. The Solar Impulse 2 only has a cruising speed that is less than the speed of a car on a highway, so it will take five days to cross the Pacific.
Such a low cruising speed is necessary to maximize the efficient use of the electricity from the solar cells. At a 2009 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, Piccard stated that the solar cells on the 65 meter wingspan only produce the same energy as 200 lightbulbs. “That means a christmas tree,” he said.
The plane only has a tiny cockpit with barely enough living space for one adult, so it does not promise mass air transportation by solar power in the immediate future. However, the plane is doing exactly what its creators desired, increasing awareness about solar power.
In the same TED talk, Piccard said, “The idea is that if we fly around the world in a solar powered airplane, using absolutely no fuel, nobody ever would say in the future that its impossible to do it for cars, for heating system, for computers, and so on.”
This isn’t the first solar powered airplane. Many records have set by unmanned solar powered aircraft, as early as the 1970s. Advances in solar power have not only made engineering feats such as the Solar Impulse 2 possible, but have also made solar power a more and more feasible alternative to other power sources.
This is evident by the increase of solar power globally and in the United States. According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, last year the U.S. had enough solar electric capability to power 3.5 million homes. The U.S. encourages solar power by providing numerous grants, loans, and incentives for government and private business to use solar power among other sources of renewable energy.
In 2012, Yuba college capitalized on a government low interest loan and invested in a total of 3000 kiloWatts of solar arrays across the Marysville, Woodland, Sutter, and Colusa campuses. Over 15 years, these solar panels will create a net savings of $2.5 million, not to mention saving countless natural resources from being used to generate electricity.
Unfortunately, home solar panels are a hefty investment, but they are worth it in the long run. The true cost of home solar panels come after factoring in one’s home electricity usage and potential hidden savings such as federal tax credits, rebates, and even property tax exemptions, depending on location. Although it may take 5-10 years before one realizes a return on home solar panels, it is not just an investment in the home, but an investment in a greener future for us all.