Inspirational: Solar Impulse duo proving energy’s future, trashing nuclear

Some spectacular individuals choose to promote good causes by testing their bodies to the extreme. Like South Africa’s Lewis Pugh who regularly swims in near freezing seas to highlight the plight of the oceans. Swiss explorer/adventurer Bertrand Piccard is made of the same stuff. I first met him in Davos in 2009 when facilitating a session highlighting his prowess, and have followed his journey ever since. Piccard’s latest obsession is to fly around the world in an aircraft powered exclusively by the sun. Having teamed up with former jet fighter pilot and entrepreneur Andre Borschberg, the duo’s revolutionary Solar Impulse project has captured the attention of millions. They’re half way through their challenge and are sharing experiences to packed WEF audiences in Davos this year. Here’s our interview. Inspirational and insightful – with some interesting comments on nuclear power. – Alec Hogg

Alec Hogg is with Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the pilots of the Solar Impulse. Bertrand, we met many years ago here, in Davos it was. At the time you had just done your balloonist around the world. You beat Richard Branson at that but clearly there’s no challenge too much for you.

There is no challenge too much and especially when you have a success, the goal is to use the success to do even better. Around the world in the balloon, I used four tons of liquid propane to heat the balloon during the 20 days of the flight. Now it’s one step better to try to go around the world with an aeroplane that has not fuel at all and Solar Impulse is the first aeroplane of perpetual endurance that can fly forever, day and night with no fuel.

André, from your perspective, how did you get involved in the project?

When Bertrand had this idea, in fact, following the flight around the world with the balloon, he talked about it to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, which is at the MIT of Switzerland. We became very interested about the idea, thought about making a feasibility study and as I was developing other technologies from the school at this time they asked me if I would be interested to set up a team to see what could be made there.  In fact, that’s how we met and all Audrey and I are completely different.  Audrey is an entrepreneur, an engineer, a jet fighter pilot.  I’m an explorer, psychiatrist, and a balloonist.  Together we cover a huge scope and this helps us to be more creative.  We challenge each other.  We use our differences of appreciation, differences of experience to try to increase our creativity and our possibility of innovation.  Since twelve years it’s really a beautiful relation.

You’re an explorer. You have a family background in that area.

My grandfather indeed was the first man in the stratosphere inventing the principal of the pressurized cockpit and my father made the deepest dive ever to the bottom of the Marianna Trench, 11 kilometers down.  I was always impressed by the people who were exploring the unknown, who were getting out of their comfort zone, who were trying to make impossible things because all the people I met in my childhood like all the astronauts I met when I was a child, they were turning the impossible into possible and I thought that’s the way to live and I wanted to do the same.

You love change.

I love change when it’s for the best but you never know in the beginning what will happen.  It means that you need as a human being to be ready for change, to be open for everything.  You have to be free of your certitudes, of your dogmas, of your beliefs that keep you prisoner of outdated ways of thinking and behaving and when you are doing that, then you have all the options in front of you and you choose which one will bring you to the best direction.  That’s pioneering spirit.

André do you also love change?

I do.  I mean I’m working since I left university on new ideas, new project as an entrepreneur, so our special part aviation but I could keep it as a hobby, even as I was a pilot in the Swiss Air force but it was not my main activity and I always like, in fact, to go into the unknown –   trying to solve a problem, try to solve the questions, trying to develop something which is completely new.  When I met Bertrand, in fact, it was the possibility for me to merge the two things I really, really liked to do.  Aviation one side and exploring, developing, and innovating on the other side, which I did but never in the field of aviation.  When we met everything started to make sense and was brought together.  This was really a special moment twelve years ago. André is a fantastic entrepreneur.  He knows how to set up a team, how to lead the team and you imagine the type of difficulties that a team like that has to go through and I was very much admiring his power of work, his power of organizing things to make them happen.

How did you share – just to get to the journey now, the Solar Impulse journey, how did you share the time in the cockpit?

When you fly in an aeroplane like this you have to pilot it, control it and it’s a difficult aeroplane to control but you also have this feeling of responsibility for the millions of people who follow this flight because they support the message about clean technologies, about the protection of the indictment, about renewal of energies.  You are in a way, alone in the cockpit but connected to millions of people and you have to make it a success just for the sake of these people who believe in a better world.

From your perspective, did you spend as much time in the cockpit as your colleague?

He spent more time.

I spent more time, yes because I was the one who has the pilot experience.  I was able in fact to get into it very quickly but I think it took a bit more time for Bertrand to get to the same pace but now, in fact we have both our wishes but we tried also to speed the flights, one after the next and it’s interesting also to be on the ground and to help the other one to solve questions to get to its destination together with the cultural center which we have, which is based in Monaco, which is extremely important.  It’s not just like a pilot boarding an airplane, starting the engine, taking off and going to its destination.  You have to find a way to get there and five days, five nights, it’s a time long enough so that the weather forecast becomes completely unprecise.  You need to revisit the flight bus all the time.  That’s the role of the MCC and that’s also the role of the other pilot to coordinate all these efforts.

You mentioned this five nights, five days.  That was over the Pacific.  Were you in the air all the time at that point?

In the…?

In the air – you couldn’t land clearly because you’re flying over the ocean.  How did you manage that?

Well, you know the goal of this aeroplane is to fly perpetually with no fuel.  When Audrey made that fantastic flight from Japan to Hawaii, five days and five nights it was validating the vision.  It was proving that clean technology is going to achieve the impossible and today we can prove that an aeroplane with no fuel can do better than an aeroplane with fuel.

That’s an incredible psychological strain as well though in going ahead over the Pacific Ocean.  Did you at any point in time have a safety net?  Did you have plans if perhaps something went wrong?

We have a parachute, which is very important to have.  You know it’s a solution in the worst case scenario.  If you know that you have one and if you know that you can use it, that you’re trained for it, it makes the worst case not so difficult so we can put the anxiety on the side and focus on the mission.  We’ve trained and we’ve prepared quite a lot for the worst case scenario because that’s important. That’s also to save your life. We are not pseudo crazy risk takers.  We have families so we want to get to the destination in some ways safe.

How did you manage to keep going?  How did you sleep?

First of all, when I boarded the airplane, I had a different mindset. In fact I thought that five days, five nights was very short to go through this fantastic experience, which was in fact to cross this ocean with this type of technology with an aircraft we build using only the sun as the only source of energy and that’s what happened in fact. When I arrived in Hawaii, at ten o’ clock at night and I decided to land at six o’ clock in the morning. I was flying around eight hours but really enjoying every minute of it because I knew these were the last ones.  The mindset is extremely important and if you have the right mindset, you have the right level of energy.  If you have the right level of energy you can go into this unknown situation.

At this time last year you were preparing for the trip.  How long did it take in all to get around the world?

It’s a project that started in 1999, really starting to work in 2002/2003. It goes through a first prototype which crossed Europe, went to Morocco across the US, the second aeroplane. First half of the around the world last year and the second half, hopefully this year. It’s a long-term project and if you want to achieve the impossible it always takes a little more time than when it’s easy and possible.

What do you want to achieve from this?  Are you expecting, for instance that there would be other innovators who would then become stimulated to do something similar in the solar energy field?

Today you need two legs to walk and you need two legs for energy. You need production and it has to be renewable and you need efficiency in order not to waste energy and the technologies today exist. For a long time they were not profitable but today they are profitable for the industry. They are profitable to fight climate change but a lot of people are still with old habits trying to do the easiest and the easiest is to burn fossil fuels. If you want to motivate the world to change, if you want to motivate people to go into clean technologies, you need to show them spectacular applications and examples and that’s what we are doing with Solar Impulse and actually this is why most of our time we are not in the cockpit to fly, we’re discussing with governance, with ministers, with NGO’s, with industry people, we’re in Talk 21 and this message is only possible for us because we have a track record and a proof of concept with a plane that can do it.

What about something like nuclear?  That is old technology and it’s a competitor to renewables.  Is that something that should be part of the energy equation in future?

Why do you think it’s renewable?

Well, that’s the way it’s marketed it.

Yes, for some people but if you really look at it; I think it’s difficult to believe that’s the case. Of course you get away from the CO2 questions but you don’t get away to the other questions about sustainability. I think instead of thinking always more and more on how to produce more energy, we really want to show that what we should do, what we can do is to reduce the energy that we use. By using the technologies which are available we don’t need to make a huge amount of developments. They exist, they are there. We use them.  We can use them in house building, in transportation. That’s the kind of change we have to make in the mindset of people is to think about how to be more efficient using the technology which is available, which is even something which is economical. We just met someone from Sweden and it happens to be there that companies who build homes and buildings, they go far further away than the norms which are imposed in terms of insulation because they understand it’s more profitable to do this, this way and that’s exactly what people should realize.

Maybe you can tell me your view on nuclear.

I’m not by principle someone who spends his life fighting against nuclear power but when you count uranium, when you count recycling the waste, when you count dismantling the atomic power plants at the end of their life, if you count the insurance for liability, it is much more expensive by kilowatt hour for the community in general than solar power or wind power. Economically speaking now we have to change but there is one new theory about nuclear power plants where you can use the wastes that have been produced in the last 40 years as the fuel to produce energy and this is quite interesting. It’s this theory with the melted salts and so on. This would bring toxic waste to non-toxic waste and if it really happens, then I can believe it can give a new life to nuclear power.

As things stand right now are nuclear power stations a good idea or a bad idea?

Good what?

To build a new nuclear power station?

No, I don’t think now it’s profitable to build new nuclear power plants with the technology of yesterday. Now it becomes much more profitable to build wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass power plants and hydroelectricity but was, is even more profitable and what brings the most profit is to put on the market the clean technologies, to be much more energy efficient by having electrical mobility, by having LED light bulbs, to have insulation of houses, and to have lighter materials and to have smart grade. When you invest in this, you see the profitability is fantastic, so you have clearly the investors who are doing more of the same trying to make the past longer and you have the one who invest for the future. Economically speaking they are the one who are going to win. It’s not even a question of protecting the environment.

Who’s getting it right around the world? We in South Africa watch Elon Musk very carefully and the work that he’s doing.  Is he one of those who is doing the right stuff pioneering?

Certainly one which tries to get into new territories and shows the way, it’s interesting that you know, this tesla car comes from someone, doesn’t come from the car industry. At the end it’s quite typical but now everybody is following, so we need in fact this type of people. He’s the one also who changed the rules and the name of the game in space exploration. At least now delivering for example, products, goods to the space station, so yes I think he’s someone which should clone a little bit and have more of these around.

We’ve got his cousins from South Africa who are doing Solar City in America and they’re also pretty big, so it’s aligned with what you were talking about.

You need to be successful to show a sexy face of renewable energies. For a long time the electrical cars were ugly. Nobody wanted them and Elon had this wonderful idea to make a sports car electric and that’s how he penetrated the market. This is clever.

What’s next for you guys? Obviously, you’ve got the second stage of Solar Impulse. When does it kick off and what are you hoping to achieve there?

We want the first time. We have to win the second half time taking off from Hawaii to the West Coast to the US, crossing America, crossing the Atlantic, going back to Europe and hopefully successfully back to Abu Dhabi.

When do you start?

Mid-April – when the energy window opens, when the days get longer and the nights shorter.

Do you do any particular training, special training of the mind, of the body to be fit enough to manage this?

Yes, we have to go back and do all this and that’s what we’ll do now in March so it’s bio training but as you say it’s also to prepare right mindset for this. That’s part of the job which we have to do.

As an entrepreneur, is there a business imperative here after solar impulse has succeeded – please God?

I think there are a lot of things which can be done. First of all we have to realize the technology that we use in the airplane are now going to be and are integrated in other type of applications on the ground and this is done by our partner. They all protect energies, not to develop a new aviation industry but to develop solution for their own customers. This is happening. What we could do is to use, and that’s what we’re currently working on is to use the experience and the know how we have to develop an unmanned version of samples to fly very high and to replace in some way satellites able to stay six months, twelve months in the air at the same location, moving around, so much more flexible, sustainable and I guess also cheaper.

As an adventurer, once this is behind you, 2016, what’s the next frontier for you, Bertrand?

I worked in the last 20 years of my life to have a platform with a track record that proves how much we can protect the environment and have the better quality of life with nucleon technologies. I would like before going in anything else, to spread this message further in government in the United Nations for the industry. This is a big goal for the future.

Thank you, gentlemen.

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