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.