When Andre Borschberg recently piloted Solar Impulse HB-SIA to a smooth landing at an airfield near Bern in Switzerland, he did what almost everyone believed to be impossible — fly a manned aircraft using only solar power through the night. The 26 hour and nine minute flight of the four-engine plane did not merely set an aviation record. It spotlighted the role of renewable energy. It was eloquent testimony to the vision of aeronaut-psychiatrist-innovator Bertrand Piccard, co-founder of the project. The Lausanne-born Mr. Piccard, who made the first non-stop, round-the-world balloon flight with Briton Brian Jones a decade ago, is keen to push back the limits of the impossible. It is quite natural, therefore, that he now wants to pursue his grand plan to fly around the world in a solar-powered aircraft. The key message to emerge from the programme is that consistent effort to enhance efficiency can enlarge the role of solar in the mix of energy sources. The proof lies in the fact that the 11,628 solar cells on the 1,600 kg Solar Impulse delivered enough energy to power the engines for take-off and for the aircraft to stay aloft for a day and more. Nobody is talking yet of flying 300 people in a solar plane but why is this renewable, risk-free option not used more widely for energy-intensive equipment, for example, air-conditioners and heaters, when unit costs are falling?
A move away from fossil fuel for energy production, and a speedy transition to power from wind, water, and solar is a progressive way to combat climate change. Such an energy pathway would make it possible for people to maintain a good quality of life and yet not degrade the environment. Indeed, some scientists have argued that a smart shift to renewables can reduce projected global energy demand in the coming decades, because massive electrification would enable more efficient technologies to emerge. Such an energy revolution would be impossible, however, if the energy mix continues to rely heavily on fossil fuel, primarily coal and oil, which are implicated in climate change. Dr. Piccard points out that most people are unwilling to give up comforts they are used to, a factor that is perhaps not adequately acknowledged by the Green movement. What is within the realm of the possible is tapping renewable energy. The countries in the global solar belt, of which India is a part, are making some encouraging moves to tap the potential of the sun. They need to speed up their efforts, and get goal-oriented in pursuit of technologies that can raise output from both solar photovoltaics and solar thermal power generation.