Jul 17 2013

Solar Power Takes Flight

Whether you’re aware of it or not, solar power has truly taken flight. I’m not just talking about the drastic increases in photovoltaic energy production worldwide, estimated to be increasing 40% to 90% annually (Tyagi et al.), or the increase in different solar technologies (including use of different collection methods and materials) and efficiency of solar energy production (NREL). Such growth in photovoltaic, or solar, energy can be seen in the following graphs:

Photovoltaic (Solar) Energy Production from 2000 to 2010. Bar graph with colored sections showing certain contributions by country. (Jäger-Waldau, 9)


NREL efficiency chart

Chart showing the different photovoltaic cell technologies and their respective growth in highest efficiencies from 1977 to 2013.

Although these data are quite impressive, I’m talking about another amazing feat in the solar energy realm: an airplane powered entirely by solar cells. Solar power is literally, taking flight.  The crew of the new project, Solar Impulse, has already managed to achieve their preliminary goals of being the first solar powered airplane to fly day and night without fuel. The first Solar Impulse prototype, Solar Impulse HB-SIA, was constructed in 2010 and first took a full day and night continuous flight in July of 2010, breaking the world records for absolute height, height gain, flight duration, free distance along a course, and straight distance of a solar powered airplane (Solar Impulse). In April of 2013, the same plane took off from Mountain View, California to fly across the U.S. (Henn). After making only six stops along the way to change pilots, the plane landed in JFK International Airport at 11:09 PM on July 6th (Solar Impulse). What is next goal of the Solar Impulse team? To fly around the world in 2014 in the next prototype: Solar Impulse HB-SIB.

The entire Solar Impulse project  is spectacular and quirky in a multitude of ways. The wingspan of the plane is about the same as a Boeing 747 (208 ft), yet it is about as light as the average car (3,527 lbs). The cabin seats only one pilot in order to minimize cargo weight (which is why they have to land about every 24 hours) and the solar display contains over 11,000 mono-crystalline  silicon solar cells. Another surprising factor: the plane only flies at about 43 mph. The Solar Impulse website provides pages and pages of information about the mission, the history, the team, and the planes at http://www.solarimpulse.com/en/.


Solar Impulse HB-SIA landing in Cincinnati on one leg of its journey across america in 2013. http://www.solarimpulse.com/en/multimedia/pictures/


Pilots A. Borschberg and B. Piccard with the Clean Generation flag after the landing of the Solar Impulse HB-SIA in Washington, D.C. in its 2013 journey across America.


Bertrande Piccard and Andre Borschberg are partners in creating and piloting  Solar Impulse. In an interview on the Diane Rehm show on NPR, Piccard and Borschberg discussed how they both ended up becoming interested in solar powered flight. Piccard was a world traveler who resented our dependence on fossil fuels for transportation and Borschberg was an entrepreneur. In the same interview, Piccard made an interesting connection to the innovation of the Wright Brothers:

“We do the best we can with the technologies we’ve developed with our partners. But more that what we do now is not possible today. It will probably be possible in the             future. But, you know, when the Wright Brothers were flying, they were alone on board. They were flying 40 miles an hour. They had the same power then we have. And           they flew 200 meters. And 66 years later there were two men on the moon. So we’re starting now a new cycle. We have a little bit of constraints and limitations because             we’re doing it with no fuel at all, so it’s completely new. And maybe it will lead us very far in the future for other applications.”

Piccard and Borschberg are highly skeptical about commercial or passenger flights being powered by solar energy in the future, but they recognize that Solar Impulse is a ground-breaking stepping stones for solar-powered aviation. The Solar Impulse was not the first solar powered plane (Vashishtha et al.), but it will certainly not be the last.


Henn, S., 2013, Solar-Powered Plane Uses Its Lightness To Fly In The Dark, National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2013/03/27/175371800/solar-powered-plane-uses-its-lightness-to-fly-in-the-dark, (July 16, 2013)

Jäger-Waldau, A., 2011, PV Status Report 2011: Research, Solar Cell Production and Market Implementation of Photovoltaics, European Commission, DG Joint Research Centre, Institute for Energy, Renewable Energy Unit, (http://www.ncpre.iitb.ac.in.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/userfiles/files/PV_Status_Report_2011.pdf, (July 16, 2013).

NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory): National Center for Photovoltaics, 2013, Best Research-Cell Efficiencies Charthttp://www.nrel.gov/ncpv/ with chart found at http://www.nrel.gov/ncpv/images/efficiency_chart.jpg, (July 16, 2013).

Rehm, D., 2013, Transcript for: The Mission To Fly A Solar-Powered Plane Around The World, WAMU 88.5 National Public Radio, http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2013-06-19/mission-fly-solar-powered-plane-around-world/transcript, (July 16, 2013).

Tyagi, V. V., Nurul, A.A., Rahim, N.A., Jeyraj, A., Selvaraj, L., 2012, Progress in solar PV technology: Research and achievement, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 20, April 2013, Pages 443–461, http://www.sciencedirect.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/science/article/pii/S1364032112005291, (July 16, 2013).

Vashishtha, V., Kumar, A., Makade, R., & Lata, S., 2011, Solar Power, The Future of Aviation IndustryInternational Journal Of Engineering Science & Technology, 3, 3, pp. 2051-2058, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, (July 16,2013).


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