When clean energy is the goal

Bertrand Piccard | Photo Credit: Jean Revillard/Rezo
Sooraj Rajmohan 05 February 2018 18:25 IST
Updated: 06 February 2018 12:28 IST

Swiss psychiatrist and balloonist Bertrand Piccard is on a mission to help governments and corporations adopt clean energy by speaking the language of profitability

Bertrand Piccard has no qualms about calling himself a pioneer. The Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist is best known for circumnavigating the globe twice, once in a balloon, and again on Solar Impulse, a solar plane built from the ground up by his team. Now, Piccard has made it his business to accelerate development of clean technologies through a world alliance for efficient solutions, an initiative of the Solar Impulse Foundation started by him.

Piccard, who comes from a family of balloonists and explorers, says that the Solar Impulse project was his way of bringing credibility and visibility to clean technologies among governments and the media. He admits it turned out to be more of a challenge than he originally envisioned.

Solar Impulse 2 flies over San Francisco | Photo Credit: Noah Berger


“When I started the project, I thought airplane manufacturers would be interested in subcontracting the construction of the plane. But they refused, saying it was too big and too light to be feasible. So we had to make our own team and build it from the ground up. We finally found help at a shipyard, where they knew how to use carbon fibre. Once we completed the flight, the airplane engineers who were sceptical started working in programmes for electric airplanes,” he says, adding that while he has shared the knowledge his team gained, his goal is not to build commercial electric airplanes. “I am not a man from the industry, but that is how these things work. Pioneers come forward and show that things can be done, and the industry follows and scales it for the public.”

I felt like I was in the future. Then I understood that it was the rest of the world that was in the past

His real goal was something he discovered during one of his multi-day stretches over open ocean on the Solar Impulse plane. “It was several days and nights of flights, alone in the cockpit with just the energy of the Sun, no noise, no pollution, no fuel. In the beginning, I felt like I was in the future. Then I understood that it was the rest of the world that was in the past. I was only in what the clean technologies of the world allow us to do today. I realised how important it was to bring the world from the past to the present, as the world is still relying on polluting, inefficient, old sources of energy. We must accelerate this transition in a profitable way.”

The goal of his alliance is to identify 1,000 profitable, clean solutions to current problems by the end of 2018. The non-profit venture aims to identify startups and labs conducting research with potential applications, and aid them by providing assessments by experts, contacts among investors and customers, and helping them to be identified by governments and corporations. The solutions have to be profitable, because according to him, regardless of whether a government or corporation cares about the environment, it will care about profits and savings. “We’ve identified about 500 solutions already, and though they are still to be assessed completely, the progress is good.”

In India, he believes providing remote villages the ability to produce their own renewable energy is key to eliminating poverty and boosting growth. “If you use available resources like wind, solar, biomass, hydroelectricity or even geothermal, you help villages develop in a clean way. This will bring peace, social stability and wealth, because these populations will be able to then create jobs. This is a huge market.”

Talking about the projects developed in India, he mentions Atomberg, a company that uses the same principles as the electric motors of the Solar Impulse to run electric fans for ventilation and cooling, and Open Water, a project that uses small electric fields to purify water, another major problem that India faces.

On the rise

    Elaborating on the kind of response his efforts have received, Piccard says that heads of state and industry leaders demand solutions that are profitable and that can motivate change. “Our goal is to provide these solutions, and show that they are not just ecological, but logical. Even the oil and gas industry has to realise that investment is slowly shifting to clean energy, and fossil fuels are increasingly being viewed as rotten assets. If that shift happens too quickly, we will have a financial crisis. So even for fossil fuel companies, the need to diversify into renewables becomes a financial situation more than an environmental situation.”

    Piccard’s efforts in the sphere of clean energy are bearing fruit. His solar flight has galvanised the aviation industry to consider electric power, and his support is boosting development in clean technologies by ditching ideology and promoting profitability.