The world’s most advanced solar plane, the Solar Impulse 2, was unveiled in Payerne, Switzerland, today. The plane, which has been in development for 10 years, is the successor to a solar plane that flew across the U.S. last summer. The plan is for Solar Impulse 2 to fly around the world next year using nothing but sunlight for power — the first solar-powered plane to accomplish that feat.
Solar Impulse 2 builds on its predecessor in a few important ways: It has a bigger wingspan, a bigger cockpit — to keep a pilot comfortable for five days and nights in a row—and uses lighter materials. Despite its enormous size – the plane has the wingspan of a 747 – Solar Impulse 2 is somehow insubstantial. The tops of its wings are made up of glued-together solar cells. Most of the rest of the plane is covered in a silvery plastic film.
The plane is a one-seater; the project’s two directors, Swiss pilots Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, will trade off legs on the round-the-world flight, with stops in several countries along the way. The plane has a top speed of 40 miles an hour. To squeeze the maximum efficiency out of the solar cells, the plane only weighs about as much as an SUV.
The plane has a cockpit that measures about 5 cubic yards, every detail of which has been designed for a pilot to live there for a week. It has a carbon-fiber frame and lightweight, specially-formulated insulation. However, for the sake of maximum energy efficiency, the cabin is not pressurized or heated – a further endurance challenge for the pilot.
The new plane starts test flights next month.
Building a Better Plane
The Solar Impulse project’s prototype started flying in 2010, the first solar plane ever to fly day and night. Last year, Piccard and Borschberg took turns piloting Solar Impulse 1 across the U.S. in several stages, from the San Francisco Bay area to New York. The plane soaked up energy from the sun through the day, climbing to 27,000 feet, then glided slowly downward at night, drawing on its very efficient lithium batteries.
The main difference is that this plane has to work for days on end – the cross-continental trip taken by Solar Impulse 1 only flew for up to about 24 hours at a time, whereas Solar Impulse 2 will need to make transoceanic flights. The team used new technologies and lighter materials to make the plane even more efficient. They also made the cockpit bigger and more comfortable for the pilots — and expanded the wingspan to support the bigger cockpit.
Solar Impulse 2 is also more weatherproof than its predecessor, so the electronics can work in the rain. Last year, the team could wait to start each leg of the U.S. flight until the weather was clear. But for the upcoming flight, if it starts raining halfway across the ocean, Solar Impulse 2 will have to keep going (although the pilot will have a parachute, a life raft, and shark repellent, just in case).
Charting a New Course
Borschberg and Piccard will trade off legs of the round-the-world flight. They plan to start in March 2015 from somewhere in the area of the Persian Gulf. They will fly over the Arabian Sea, across India, Burma, and China. From there the plane will cross the Pacific Ocean and cross the U.S. before taking on another ocean, on its way to Southern Europe or North Africa – and then back to the starting point. Along the way, as with the U.S. flight, they will have several stops to switch pilots and hold public events and meetings.
The project organizers’ hope is to inspire people to care about new, sustainable technologies. “You know, it’s not the easiest way to fly around the world,” Piccard says. The point is to get people to pay attention to sustainability — and to think that maybe saving the world can be exciting and fun. “If we didn’t have this airplane,” he told me, “nobody would care about what we think.”
Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) just announced that the Northern and Central California utility serving 15 million people handily exceeded the state’s 2013 renewable portfolio standard of 20 percent. The utility generated 22.5 percent of its power from “eligible” renewable energy sources in 2013.
Last year, PG&E was at 19 percent, while fellow California investor-owned utilities San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison hit 20.3 percent and 19.9 percent, respectively, as per the California PUC Renewable Portfolio Standard database.
Here is PG&E’s 2013 renewables report card:
Source: Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E)
Large hydro is not included in the utility’s RPS calculation, nor is the nearly 1,000 megawatts of distributed solar installed in its territory. The source of nuclear power is the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County.
We spoke with Denny Boyles, a PG&E spokesperson, this morning. He noted that 11 percent of the energy mix is from intermittent solar and wind. Boyles said, “Everyday we’re learning more and more on how to better integrate [renewables].”
The PG&E spokesperson pointed out that although the RPS had been increasing steadily and gradually, the road to 33 percent will be taken in bigger jumps as large projects such as the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight Solar Farm come on-line in the next few years. (Here’s an SEIA map of large solar projects in the U.S.)
PG&E has signed 155 contracts for more than 10 gigawatts of eligible renewable power since 2012.
The UK’s Technology Strategy Board is funding a consortium that includes the Waitrose supermarket chain and ITM Power, to demonstrate de-carbonisation of fertiliser production, which is responsible for a significant proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Energy storage and clean fuel specialist ITM Power is leading the consortium, which – subject to final contract – has been awarded £1.37 million (US$2.3 million) in co-funding from TSB, the UK’s innovation agency, under its Agri-Tech Catalyst programme.
The project is to design and build a system for the production of renewable fertiliser. The integrated electrolyser-based, pilot-scale system will be trialed at Waitrose’s Leckford Farm in Hampshire. ITM Power will receive approximately £0.6 million ($1 million) of the project funding.
‘ITM Power is delighted to be working with Waitrose to produce renewable fertiliser at its UK farm,’ says Dr Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM Power. ‘The widespread deployment of our technology has the potential to dramatically reduce the material greenhouse gas emissions associated with fertiliser production globally. This is a new and exciting market for us.’
One of the ways in which Waitrose strives to minimise its impact on the environment is by supporting sustainable agriculture. The involvement of the retailer’s own farm in this pilot could support this aim by helping to develop a process that could greatly reduce the environmental footprint where fertiliser is used.
Half of current global food production relies on the use of ammonia (NH3) based fertilisers, and is key to increasing yields. The challenge addressed by this project is the need to drastically reduce the emissions associated with the production of NH3-based fertilisers.
Commercial production of NH3 is a large-scale industrial process which converts natural gas (or other fossil fuels) into gaseous hydrogen, which is catalytically reacted with nitrogen to form anhydrous liquid NH3.
Hydrogen can be produced more simply and more sustainably by electrolysis of water using renewable electricity – thus decoupling NH3 production from fossil fuels, substantially decarbonising the process, and providing a means of utilising waste CO2 in urea production in line with EU climate action objectives.
When Greenpeace praised Apple, Google and Facebook last week for moving rapidly to 100% renewable energy, one of the accomplishments they noted was their impact on Duke Energy.
They coaxed the biggest US utility, Duke Energy, to provide renewable energy directly to large electricity buyers.
Google plans to expand its data center in North Carolina and wants renewable energy to power it, so it pushed Duke to develop what’s now called the Green Source Rider. It was approved by state regulators in December and is viewed as a model that can be used across the US.
Instead of having to build their own renewable energy plants, large electricity users can pay Duke a tariff – a premium above the standard price for electricity – and either Duke will build a plant to provide that or match customers with third-party suppliers through power purchase agreements. The energy provided doesn’t count toward Duke’s obligations under North Carolina’s Renewable Portfolio Standard and can be sourced from outside the state.
By paying a premium, it would alleviate the need for Duke (and, in the future, other utilities) to based renewable energy development on government incentives.
It could result in an additional 700 MW of solar in North Carolina alone.
Google explains the advantages:
On-site systems typically don’t produce sufficient electricity to power large facilities 24/7 and must be supplemented with power from the local utility provider.
Sometimes siting renewable projects off-site is a much better option, especially for larger electricity loads like data centers. The renewable resource may be better (e.g., more wind or sun) in locations distant from the load, allowing more cost effective power generation. It may also be more feasible to build larger power installations (e.g., wind farms) away from the load, where large parcels of land may be available for renewable project development.
This allows utilities to do what they do best: build power plants, procure power, manage the grid, and deliver electricity to customers.
One would think utilities would like this approach – essentially being paid directly to build renewable energy plants – since their business model is so threatened by growing amounts of distributed energy.
“Some of Duke Energy’s biggest customers, including Google, Apple, Facebook and the University of North Carolina system
deserve praise for pushing Duke Energy to provide those options. They asked, and Duke is starting to listen, says Robert Gardner of Greenpeace. “Unfortunately, Duke is still turning a deaf ear to its tens of thousands of residential and small business customers in North Carolina who have similarly asked for clean energy choices.”
This all took place before the coal ash disaster that now plagues Duke Energy and North Carolina. It would be great if, as part of that settlement, that Duke would be required to significantly expand solar in the state.