Solar Impulse; and other comedies

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.


Many nuclear supporters tend to shy away from overt criticism of renewable technologies because they are confident that in any objective analysis, unencumbered by radio-phobia, nuclear will dominate any effective response to climate change; should the world choose to give a damn. After all there is no shortage of very careful objective treatments that support such a view. But every so often the solar industry, in particular, shoots itself in the foot with a spectacular demonstration of just how bad this technology is and it behooves us all to call a spade a spade and a lemon a lemon.

I’m talking about the Solar Impulse circumnavigation project.

The Solar Impulse is a solar powered aircraft consisting of more than 17,000 solar cells and 633 kilograms of lithium batteries packed into a plane with a wingspan longer than a Boeing 747. Not to mention a cast including 80 engineers, 100 advisers, a 12 year construction time, sponsorship from 80 companies including Google, a real-time website, T-shirts and of course, the obligatory baseball caps. But my personal favourite, because the project hails from Switzerland, has to be the Victorinox commemorative pen knives which will get confiscated should you try to take them on-board a real plane.

How will Solar Impulse compare with Around the World in 80 days? That was a pretty good yarn, written by Jules Verne in 1873. But Verne’s story is fictional. Phileas Fogg didn’t exist and never really attempted to circumnavigate the world in 80 days to win a rather large bet. While it never happened, it did, apparently, create intense publicity at the time because people thought it was really happening. Which neatly mirrors, or perhaps I should say “heliostats”, the renewable energy “revolution”.

Some 140 years after Verne’s book, the Solar Impulse is definitely non-fiction. You can watch it in real time and buy stuff. The initial leg of the journey was on March the 9th and, as I write (May 31), they’re about to take off across the Pacific. Here’s a table of the legs completed so far and the other 6 listed on the website:

By my reckoning they’ll be about 5000 km short of a circumference, but we’ll let that slide. My real interest is how they managed to sell this as an achievement. In 2008 Mark Beaumont cycled around the planet in 195 days pedalling 29,000 kilometers … presumably with some shipping. That’s seriously tough. But it’s no feat of technology and doesn’t demonstrate a superior mode of locomotion or foreshadow a global shift to pedal power.

Does the Solar Impulse demonstrate a superior mode of transport? Does it herald a future of solar planes? Don’t be daft. It’s slow, expensive, risky, fragile, dangerous and the total payload delivered by all those panels and batteries and dollars is just a single person; the pilot. If there were ever a Solar Olympics, the motto would be something like slower, lower, and weaker.

So what’s the purpose of this flight? Does it convince you that a scaled up version will soon be available to carry 500 people across the Pacific? We do actually need a clean technology for this so it would be rather nice for any engineers wanting a real challenge to start thinking and prototyping. The Solar Impulse isn’t a challenge or an achievement. It’s a cop-out. A selfish expensive ego trip and escape from the task of doing the tough engineering that might actually help us solve pressing problems. Toys for boys.

How does the Solar Impulse technology compare with nuclear technology? The first nuclear powered circumnavigation of the planet was in 1960. It took 60 days and carried 170 people some 49,491 kilometers; underwater. The USS Triton was one of the world’s first nuclear powered submarines. This was no gimmick, but a solid demonstration of a dramatic technical advance. Part of Australia’s submarine woes stems from our braindead insistence on using second rate (ie., non-nuclear) propulsion systems. It’s like insisting on your brand new phone being equipped with a turntable to play music; ’cause we like vinyl down-under!

When Haiti suffered a massive earth quake in 2010, one of the first requirements was fresh water. The US sent the nuclear aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson which parked off the coast where her dual nuclear reactors were used to desalinate 750,000 litres per day for the disaster zone. But I don’t remember any live website feeds or commemorative pen knives.

There’s a big difference between stuff that really works and gimmicks.

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34 Comments

  1. Geoff and other BNC readers,

    The Climate Change Authority has called for submissions: “Consultation document: modelling the electricity sector and emissions reduction policies” http://climatechangeauthority.gov.au/news/article/consultation-document-modelling-electricity-sector-and-emissions-reduction-policies

    Submissions from BNC readers could provide some useful guidance and balance. The more the better, IMO, to provide some balance to most of the advocacy they receive.

    Closing date for submissions is 12 June 2015.

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  2. Pro-nuclear supporters can pull out yards of learned papers to show that the EROEI for renewables are utter rubbish, then renewables enthusiasts will pull out their learned papers to show the exact opposite.

    So, we’ve got to rely on common sense to compare the energy density of fossil fuels (and nuclear and hydro), with the dilute energy of wind and solar radiation.

    Utilising dilute wind energy, we need a single, 1000 tonne wind turbine to drive a single, <2 tonne electric motor:
    http://idiocyofrenewables.blog

    Industrialised societies of the developed world strive for components, appliances and machines in their most ‘concentrated’ form – for cost and convenience and, not least of all, minimising resource use.

    We’ll never be able to transport all of our seaborne goods using (ultra-high efficiency) tea-clippers and we will never fill the skies with solar pv airliners. Our world cannot function on power derived from dilute energy sources.

    This should tell renewables supporters something about electricity production. Just use a bit of common sense – for all your frothy ‘justifications’, eventually you’ll have to choose between FFs and nuclear!

    Make mine: Nuclear!

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  3. This should not be considered to be proof that solar powered airplanes will ever be practical for general use. But we often do things that have no practical value. What practical value does rugby have?

    The very process of designing the solar airplane could advance technology in important fields.

    Actually, solar powered airplanes could possibly have practical uses for special purposes. Perhaps they could be used as drones which would stay up for months at a time and carry antennae or monitor volcanoes continuously.

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  4. When the Philippines was similarly devastated in 2013, their need for fresh water was just as acute. Good thing the USS George Washington was able to park off of Tacloban and desalinate 1.5 million litres of drinking water per day. http://jalopnik.com/what-exactly-is-the-uss-george-washington-doing-in-the-1465786370

    But while a pair of small modular reactors sat safely and quietly beside a city of over 200,000 desperate people and served their needs, what were nuclear hysteria websites like Natural News reporting? http://www.donotlink.com/fdqj A fictional meltdown at the fully constructed but unfueled Bataan PWR, somehow triggered by a typhoon which their own map shows did not hit it, and after it has weathered previous typhoons, earthquakes and Pinatubo itself without damage.

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  5. It seems to me that for most large prosperous nations, nuclear power is essential to reduce CO2 emissions. Even so, there is a place for renewable power systems.

    There are small island nations for which nuclear power is not practical. Currently they use a mixture of Diesel power and solar power, but Diesel power is very expensive so in remote villages, Diesel generators are run for only a few hours every evening. Some are now using solar power which they apparently find superior to Diesel power. It is sufficient to provide power for a few small LED lights in every house and to recharge cell phones and lap top computers. Of course it is not practical for refrigerators and air conditioners since the cost would be too great.

    Whether nuclear power will ever be a reasonable choice where only small amounts of power are required is unclear. But at present, solar power, despite its obvious limitations, seems the be the best choice.

    Even in large prosperous countries, there are people living in very remote areas where connecting to the grid may never be practical. That is another situation where renewable power sources make sense.

    I am not knocking nuclear power, but I do believe that in certain limited situations, renewable power sources do make sense.

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  6. @ F.R. Eggers,

    I lived in the Philippines for 15 years some years ago. I searched for good renewable energy sources for those power poor islands. They were using nearly every style you can imagine but the scale was far too small to adequately supply their growing population. I learned about pebble bed reactors in 2008 and have been following Nuclear power since then. Adam’s Atomic engines would have been a great fit for several Island nations. Guam, Ponapae, Chuuk, or Sipain, as well as places like Leyte, Bohol, Mindanao, not to say Luzon! I liked the gas cooled pebble beds because they cannot melt down and if “destroyed” contain all their fission products in the “tennis balls.” Today a product like Star Core is even better! http://starcorenuclear.ca/#!/welcome/

    I like Nuclear because it is technically possible to run a full grid from Nuclear. It scales well. It is very inexpensive in the long run and if allowed to compete on the basis of regulations similar to other energy products would be incredibly cheap, while still being safer than anything else. http://thorconpower.com

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  7. David,

    I lived in Fiji from 1994 to 2004. Recently I made a trip back to Fiji.

    In remote villages, they are installing PV power systems. Some of those villages never before had electricity and some had Diesel generators which they operated from sunset until bed time. The PV systems, despite their obvious limitation, have been successful.

    In a village of perhaps 50 to 500 people located 25 or more miles from any other village or a city, connecting to the grid is not practical especially where the power lines would have to be run through a rain forest. Some of these people don’t even have a road to their villages and some of the villages are on small islands. Yet it is doubtful that a nuclear power system small enough will exist for some time if ever. In towns with a population of perhaps 5000 people perhaps nuclear power will soon be a reasonable option but I doubt that it is now.

    It’s unfortunate that we have chosen a less than mediocre nuclear technology that requires multiple levels of safety systems to ensure adequate safety. Fortunately, as you point out, there are better alternatives.

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  8. @FREggers: Yes, PV will be useful in all kinds of places where people haven’t had electricity before, but when they’ve had the real thing (a reliable 24×7 supply you just plug into and forget), it’s hard to go back to PV. I was in Cape Tribulation last year … a beautiful place … built on eco-tourism with a reputation for unspoiled nature (& no mobile phones) and their experience of PV in a rain forest was/is dismal. They are desperate for real electricity.

    http://www.rainforesthideaway.com/capetribulation/cape-tribulation.htm

    Will there be a nuclear based solution for such places? I hope so.

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  9. A solar aviation enthusiast might reply something like this…

    Discussions on aviation are unbalanced, the new solar technology deserves equal time. As a new technology, its costs are rapidly decreasing and soon must achieve parity with jetliner airfares. The process would be assisted if we taxed jetliners sufficiently to make solar airfares relatively attractive.

    Jetliners are dangerous. If a fully fuelled jetliner exploded in a busy city street, tens of thousands of people would be killed. If each of the world’s 20,000 jetliners exploded low over a wooden city, the resulting conflagration would blacken the sky and cast the world into a permanent winter.

    By comparison, a hijacked solar airliner could only be used to drop empty beer bottles onto unsuspecting citizens in the trenches below.

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  10. It’s okay Geoff, you can make a nuclear plane if you want. I know how it hurts to feel left out.

    And Brave New Climate, drop the facade. You hate renewables and you don’t want them to succeed.

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  11. I’m sure they laughed at the Wright Brothers too, but look where we are now. I don’t think I will flying the Pacific on a solar plane any time soon, but who knows. And remind me once again how many nuclear planes are there flying?

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  12. This blog post is a fairly open representation of the passionate sentiment I see simmering quietly underneath the nuclear advocacy movement.

    Essentially, an angry, passionate zeal for the idea that renewable energy should play no part in anything, rather than some part in some things. The kind of zeal that instantly alienates anyone that doesn’t already hold your world view.

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  13. @evcricket: I don’t “hate” them, but I do think they are a dangerous waste of time. I don’t see how they will lead to a full decarbonisation and that’s what we need. I’d be interested in your
    opinion of this article … it’s shows that wind+solar combined with market mechanisms can’t deliver a full decarbonisation. If you do read it, then comment on the BT site.

    http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/voices/energetics/a-look-at-wind-and-solar-part-2

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  14. Hey, it’s not about going nuclear, it’s about saving the greenhouse. The passion round here is to get moving on completely replacing all fossil carbon. Without storage, it is just not possible to do that with wind and solar. The renewables faddists have been told, but their obstruction of all-means-including-nuclear makes them party to vast death and destruction due our inaction across the centuries ahead.

    If we on BNC are treating the obstruction as a joke, we are being very, very gentle. Survivors of our future will not be so kind.

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  15. Roger, and others, why do you keep saying “without storage”. We have heaps of storage already, and there is more coming with new batteries. To date there have not been incentives in the market to support storage, but if the volatility you so deeply fear from renewables ever materialises, then yes, there will be plenty of incentive to deploy more storage.

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  16. Evcricket – the words are being heard but not the numbers. “Utility scale storage” has been discussed before on BNC. In short, the storage needed to supply a city through a week of unfavorable weather would cost more than the same sized nuke giving several years of power.

    Storage is a looming problem, not least to supply non-carbon power to aircraft.

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  17. Show me the evidence Roger. Renewables penetration in Australia has increased over the last ten years, that’s a solid trend. Show me the evidence that this has increased volatility in the market, thus demonstrating a requirement for storage.

    A paper forecasting a requirement is useless compared to analysing actual australian data.

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  18. It’s a solid trend to nowhere. There’s a paper by CSIRO that says 40% (max) penetration is achievable with renewables before grid instability. Such 40% is not the 100% we should be aiming for when the IPCC advises we must halve global emissions every 15 years. That must include all power consumption, including aircraft – which really do need energy storage.

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  19. No, you try again. A week without sun and wind in a city of one million, consuming a gigawatt. Without 1 GW-week of storage or nuclear power, how are you going to supply it? You can’t.

    Renewables rely on remaining a minority of power supply on a grid with plenty of gas turbines to cover the variations. But the gas useage is due for the chop. We need nukes for the heavy lifting.

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  20. As a supporter of nuclear energy, I certainly don’t shy away from criticism of the so called “renewable energy” industry.

    I have been collecting from a large array of papers for an upcoming post here examining the question of whether the so called “renewable energy” industry is, in fact sustainable even in the short term, owing to its massive draw on increasingly worrisome mineral supplies.

    I will also show that the humanity has just invested $1.8 trillion dollars (US) in the last 10 years on so called “renewable energy” and has, in return, very little to show for it, particularly if one looks at the composition of the planetary atmosphere.

    For a very long time, the so called “renewable energy” industry has felt itself immune from criticism, with the result that it has been able to absorb tremendous resources on a planet strewn with hopelessly impoverished people, without being questioned.

    If we spend $1.8 trillion every ten years on this enterprise, it should be able to withstand criticism and examination, even fiercely critical examination. Advocates of the enterprise have no right, no right in the place of human decency, to state that they are above and beyond criticism.

    We are in a crisis. For most of 2015 the concentration of carbon dioxide has been well above 400 ppm. If we are constantly repeating the same procedure, and the procedure doesn’t work – and it doesn’t – then we are dooming all future generations.

    We MUST question this.

    I apologize for the amount of time it is taking to put together the detailed post, but it’s a lot of work, even just reading through the references for it. It’s proving to be a depressing exercise, because its dawning on me just how awful this “renewable energy” fantasy really is.

    I would like to note that I was, in fact, once in my life a “renewables will save us” advocate, for which I must apologize to humanity.

    I have changed my mind obviously, and I’m very glad that Brave New Climate is here for the venting which some claim is “that which must not be said” but is in fact quite the opposite, that which should be said, in fact, is required to say.

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  21. @NNadir: I look forward to your post! There appears to be surprisingly little thought into what a 100% renewable decarbonisation would look like … they are simply making it up as they go, banking the subsidies and hoping the problems will be solved fast enough. That’s one hell of a gamble.

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  22. evcricket:  use your brain and do a little arithmetic.  People keep saying that the storage in EVs will “save us”.  Well, if all 250 million light-duty vehicles in the USA carried one of Tesla’s 85 kWh battery packs, the total storage would be just 21 TWh, or less than 2 days of average US electric consumption (a much smaller fraction of peaks during e.g. polar vortex cold snaps).

    Wind and solar can go on vacation not just for days, but for weeks.  “Renewables plus storage” only work if the storage is extremely cheap, on the order of dollars per kWh.

    Supposedly, Tesla has battery costs down around $300/kWh.  21 TWh would cost on the order of $6 trillion, or enough to build about 1 TW of AP1000 plants which need no storage at all.  If you claim to take Inconvenient Truths seriously, you need to acknowledge that one.

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  23. At one time I greatly favored wind and solar power as the way to eliminate CO2 emissions although I was never totally opposed to nuclear power. That changed when I took a motorcycle trip from here in Albuquerque, NM, U.S.A. to Savannah, Georgia and saw many wind farms with stationary blades. I belatedly began to wonder whether the intermittent nature of wind and solar power had been given adequate consideration.

    Upon returning home, I spent countless hours searching for a study that proved that, with current technology, wind and solar power would provide adequate reliable power for most large prosperous countries. Even though supporters of wind and solar power would obviously be strongly motivated to provide such proof, I was unable to find such proof. Oh, I found plenty of statements asserting that interconnecting wind and solar systems over a large area would provide adequate and reliable power, but all the statements seemed to be based on faith instead of credible quantitative data. Actually it probably would work if the grid were sufficiently large enough to encompass the Sahara Desert, Gobi Desert, Death Valley, etc., but the technology to do that does not exist. Even if it could be done, the need to overbuild by a factor of at least three and to build such an immense grid would make electricity so expensive that violent insurrections would occur.

    Other statements supporting renewables assumed that a suitable energy storage technology would soon be available, but basing critical decisions on assumptions is at best risky. Moreover, if wind were a significant part of the renewable mix, it would be necessary to have sufficient storage capacity for several months.

    I am not opposed to wind and solar power in situations where it is practical. However, wind and solar power simply cannot provide adequate and reliable power for most large prosperous countries.

    The fear that intransigent purveyors of renewable power have instilled into our politicians is making it impossible to take effective action to limit global warming adequately. It is likely that they will be responsible for a global disaster that will result in wars, famines, and plagues the scale of which is almost unimaginable.

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  24. There’s no need to be grungy about this.

    Way back in 1979 the human powered Gossamer Albatross managed to fly across the English Channel and that was at that time considered to be a great engineering feat. It didn’t prove anything, other than that it could be done. There was certainly no agenda or expectation that it would eventually lead to human powered jumbo jets.

    I think we can marvel at that event, and so too the Solar Impulse exercise. Is there really an expectation that commercial flights will end up solar powered? I haven’t seen anything to that effect.

    If anything the Solar Impulse proves what can be done with dilute energy source, but more so, especially with its set-backs due to inclement weather, it proves rather starkly what can’t be done with it.

    I’m aware that at a base level this sort of thing inspires some people to join the wrong dots, adding 2 + 2 to make 100, but I can still marvel at the enterprise for what it is. I would love to build a solar plane that can go around the world, just for the sheer technology challenge.

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  25. Chris,

    Good post! The technical challenge posed by the Solar Impulse may well have already led to advancements in technology even though the solar powered plane itself may not have any practical uses.

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  26. @DBB

    Forty years ago, a friend and I prepared to write a book on solar energy. However, we decided to wait until on the rapidly developing technology until amorphous silicon could be applied like a paint onto a roofing panel that charged up like a capacitor and supplied its charge across the hours of darkness.

    I’m glad we waited.

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  27. I have found a blog providing updates on the flight
    http://blog.solarimpulse.com

    In summary, new batteries were obtained and installed in late February and several “training” (test?) flights have been taken to ensure the Solar Impulse is still operating correctly and the new batteries do not overheat.

    Resumption of the world flight from Hawaii to mainland USA is scheduled for mid April when the daylight hours have extended sufficiently. Some of the engineers have begun to return to the Mission Control Center in Monaco in preparation.

    In the meantime, they have won the “SGE Trip of the Year Award” for 2015 (Sociedad Geográfica Española). By the time they return to Abu Dhabi, they may have become eligible for several more.

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