Bertrand Piccard: Renewable champion’s strong message to nuclear protagonists

Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard is much sought after in Davos – not just by those who wish to bask in reflected fame, but also because of insights his unique experiences have brought. Piccard first hit the headlines when beating Richard Branson’s attempt to become the first person to circumnavigate the world in a hot air balloon. He followed that up last year by flying around the world in a solar-only powered airplane. Piccard is a champion for improving the state of the world, focusing his attention on promoting the benefits of renewable energy. In this fascinating discourse, he explains how the cost of wind and solar power has continued to fall and is now at a fraction of what nuclear power would cost. So why does South Africa persist with a potentially bankrupting nuclear build programme? Piccard has a typically forthright answer. Have a listen. – Alec Hogg

Bertrand Piccard, we met in Davos, it must be ten years ago when you were on a panel of adventurers. I didn’t realise at that time how adventurous you were going to be. Solar Impulse, we spoke about it last year and it’s been done.

Yes, a lot of people did not believe it would be possible to have an aeroplane flying perpetually, getting solar energy, loading the batteries when it’s flying during the day, so we could spend the night in the air until the next day and continue like this almost forever and it worked, it worked and I’m so happy because not only is it a sign that aviation can progress, but it’s a sign that technologies can achieve the impossible, that you can be cleaner, you can do better with no fuel than with fuel, that’s really the signal of Solar Impulse.

Why did you do it, was it for publicity, was it for the cause, for a higher purpose?

I’ve always been educated by my grandfather and my father in the goal that exploration and scientific adventure should protect the environment. So for me it was obvious, after flying around the world nonstop in a balloon I had credibility, I had fame, I had to use it for a good purpose and the good purpose for me is clearly now to show that clean technologies can change something in the world for the good. It’s not a question of being green; it’s a question of being clean. You have profitable solutions today to fight climate change and at the same time to create jobs and make profit. So it’s a win-win, we have to use it. There is no excuse in not doing it.

Let’s spend a bit of time on your father and your grandfather. It’s not often that you have such a strong line of adventurers.

My grandfather made the first flight in the stratosphere. In 1931 his goal was to show that it was possible to fly pressurised in the stratosphere with less resistance of air because the air is thinner, so you would save fuel, save energy, it would be very ecological and when my father made the dive to the deepest spot in the ocean in the Mariana Trench, that was in 1960, his goal was to show that there was life down there in a period of time where the governments wanted to dump the radioactive waste in the trenches and when he saw a fish and came back to the surface, it was a really important signal, it was a milestone for the protection of the environment because the governments took it seriously.

So you’re changing the world, or your family has been for many years. What instigated that? Is there a bit of William Tell in the Piccard family?

I’m an explorer and I am a medical doctor, so I like the unknown, I like to challenge the doubts and the question marks because I think it’s the only way to evaluate, to learn something new and because I’m a medical doctor, my goal is to bring better quality of life. I think today, you know, Clean Technologies is a therapy for the addiction to dirty energies, so of course I’m flying a Solar Impulse, I initiated that project, but I act as a doctor to fight against climate change with therapy that is valuable, that is credible, that works and just more people should produce it.

Well, you’re ahead of the game, I was in a session yesterday where they spoke about renewable energy being 50 percent of new investment into all energy, so there the flywheel is turning.

Yes, finally, but it’s not only a question of producing more energy even if it’s clean. The goal now is to use less energy. It means to replace the old, inefficient systems by new clean systems that are more efficient and this replacement is a new market, this is actually where profit will be made, where investments can be made. The energy you save with electric cars, with insulated houses, with new heating and cooling systems, with smart grid, with LED lamps, all this money saved is money that can run the economy.

Solar Impulse was very well-covered around the world, lots on social media. After the event though, was there any anti-climax or have you managed to kick on?

No anti-climax because I think the plane landed, but I did not land. Now I’m working fulltime with the Solar Impulse Foundation to bring within two years 1000 solutions that are efficient and profitable to fight climate change.

Explain that.

I am creating the World Alliance for Clean Technologies to bring together all the people who have solutions, who have technologies, who have new ways of doing, new ways of thinking, new processes and by bringing them together it’s a possibility to cross feed investments, knowledge, experience, and the Solar Impulse Foundation is going to advertise for the solutions, promote them, bring them to governments, bring them to the United Nations where, by the way, I’m a goodwill ambassador.

So I want to show that the solutions exist because when the government is taking target in terms of reduction, it’s a political negotiation, it has nothing to do with the reality, the solutions are making the reality happen and this is why we have to bring these solutions that are implementable in different countries, different regions of the world, different economic or social situations, methodological situations, but we need now to have all the countries being able to have these solutions for them, you know to create more growth, but clean growth, because clean growth is going to use less energy and pollute less than the dirty stagnation that we have today.

However, you are an adventurer, so what’s the next adventure?

The next adventure is clearly this one. I’m not now going to fly around the world a third time because I think I have to leverage the success of the Solar Impulse and I’m not addicted to adventure, I want adventure to be useful. When I flew around in the balloon, I created a charity foundation, fighting against sicknesses of poverty like Norma in Africa, it’s the Winds of Hope Foundation, and it still exists. We have federated a lot of institutions fighting against Norma, made political actions also at the WHO. I want, now to leverage the success of Solar Impulse to be clearly useful with solutions in the clean technology world.

So the Solar Impulse Foundation will be your adventure going ahead for the immediate future.

That’s where I want to dedicate my life for the future.

Where do you find the people that you were talking about who would be cross-pollinating the ideas?

We have a lot of relations already and just the fact that we announced it in the media, in the social media, in the political world, brings people now who come with the ideas, it can be individuals, it can be start-ups, it can be big companies and we are also funded by partners who want this foundation to reach its goal so we have Solvay, we have Nestle, we have Covestro, we have private donors who fund this foundation, so we can offer all the services for free to all the members.

Swiss pilot Andre Borschberg (R) smiles with his compatriot pilot Bertrand Piccard before flying the Solar Impulse 2, at Al Bateen airport in Abu Dhabi, at the start of an attempt to fly around the world in the solar-powered plane March 9, 2015.REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

That’s exciting stuff, but I’d like to ask you something on a more controversial level on Clean Energy and that’s the nuclear lobby. They’ve latched onto clean energy because they do not emit CO2’s. Is nuclear part of the solution?

The new nuclear research made now at the MIT, is very promising. They are preparing a system where they can burn the old radioactive waste that is very dangerous, making energy and making waste that only has a lifetime of less than a hundred years, so it’s very safe and very valuable. This yes, but the nuclear system we have today is completely old-fashioned and it’s not profitable. You have wind and solar energy that is much cheaper than the common nuclear power plants that we have today in Europe.

So if you can wait a while, use the MIT type solutions, then nuclear might have a role, but look at Hinkley Point, for instance in the UK where it appears as though they are going ahead or they aren’t going ahead, depending on what day of the week it is, but the costs seem to be extremely high, is that what you’re talking about when you say, not profitable?

Absolutely, and the cost of the kilowatt hour, if my information is correct, is 21 cents per kilowatt hour, it’s absolutely ridiculous. You have countries today like Morocco and the Emirates who produce wind and solar electricity for less than three cents per kilowatt hour, so everything has changed so fast. Of course, when they started with that nuclear project in the UK, wind and solar energy was still too expensive, but the price is decreasing in an exponential way and we have to take that into consideration. If you have millions or billions to invest, invest in clean technologies, it’s much more profitable and in energy efficiency. Can you imagine if you were to insulate all the houses of the country, like the UK or a country in Europe, the energy you save is so incredibly big that it pays back all the investment for it.

Why then would a country like mine, South Africa, be looking to invest one third of its GDP in a 10 000 kilowatt hour nuclear programme, is there something more sinister to it, is the nuclear industry maybe corrupt, is there stuff that we don’t understand why these decisions are taken or is it just ignorance?

I think that we don’t really understand what happens behind the scene. You have political interest, you have financial interest, what we need now is to put the population’s interest in front and it’s completely stupid to invest billions in systems that produce energy at a higher price than solar and wind or bayonets that are completely profitable and completely clean. So now clearly the investment has to go into renewable energy and in the countries where renewable energies are still too expensive, the investment has to go into energy-saving technologies, energy efficiency, because today already we can divide by two the CO2 emissions of the world just by introducing energy-efficient technologies, clean technologies that exist today, so it’s not a question of having more research or innovation in the future, it’s a question of just using what we have today.

Bertrand, I know ABB were very involved in Solar Impulse, are you still working with them?

ABB is doing a fantastic job. They are implementing on the markets, all the technologies that I’m promoting with Solar Impulse, so in a way ABB is giving the credibility to the symbolic message of Solar Impulse.

So that’s a combination of partnership between business and social community or a social activist, which you are.

Absolutely, completely and in a clean way and not in a green way, I don’t want to go on the side of the green political parties who are fighting against mobility, against comfort, against growth, because this doesn’t work, it creates too much resistance, so you have to go on the side of the alliance between the protection of the environment, the profit, and the industrial market that can grow things to the protection of the environment. This is really the work I’m doing now.

And building a better world.

Of course, who would not like to have a better world? The problem is that many people don’t act, I want to act, I want to finish my life telling myself I did everything I could.

Just to close off with, we’ve had three generations of Piccards doing extraordinary things, have you got children who are going to be following in your footsteps?

I have three daughters and I told them that the goal for them is to find their own way, it’s not necessarily to fly balloons, go in submarines, or solar aeroplanes around the world, they have to find their own way, and they have to use the pioneering spirit in their job to make things better. One is a lawyer, the other one is an economist, the third one, an architect. They can change big things in the world with these tools. You don’t need to fly; you can also have your feet on the ground and be an explorer, be an adventurer, be a pioneer and change things for the better.

That was Bertrand Piccard and this special podcast was brought to you by BrightRock.

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