The aim – the first solar-powered manned flight to circumnavigate the world – is a noble one, and the first seven legs of the journey went off without a hitch. Then came the biggest leg of the journey: an 8,500km flight across the Pacific from Nanjing, China to Hawaii.
Piloted by André Borschberg, Solar Impulse embarked on the mammoth stretch, before inhospitable weather patterns ahead forced a diversion to Japan. The aircraft depends on harvesting enough sunshine during the day to fully charge its batteries for the night, and consistent cloud cover would be fatal.
They knew it wouldn’t be simple. As the other pilot, Bertrand Piccard, said: ‘if it was easy, somebody else would have done it before’. But when you’re in the spotlight as a trailblazer for solar power applications, your success or failure can have wider PR implications for photovoltaic (PV) and ancillary industries.
So what has been the impact for Solar Impulse? Has it been a reputational crash-landing, or a PR high-flyer?
The simplistic argument put forward by some in the media is that it has been a high-profile failure, and therefore damaging to the nascent solar vehicle industry, and perhaps the solar industry in general. It was a glorious aim, but an Icarian mistake that ultimately vindicated those who pointed to the intermittency and weather-dependency of renewables as a fatal flaw.
Whatever reputational damage is done to solar vehicles, you might counter this by saying that PV as power-source industry is unaffected. To a certain extent you’d be right; after all, solar farms exist in a grid, not a vacuum. Perhaps if Solar Impulse was equipped with a variety of other renewable propulsion systems, plus fossil fuel/nuclear failover, then it would be an accurate analogy, but it didn’t. It would be naive though, to think that perceptions and opinions are so neatly and discretely categorised as that. A smirch on solar vehicles can easily bleed into a wider context.
But there’s another side to this story, another way to tell it. For Solar Impulse broke several records even before it was forced to divert to Japan.
Firstly, at more than 2,850km, it broke the distance record for a flight by a manned solar-powered plane. The 44 hours time in the air is also a record for such a vehicle.
Secondly, by completing a full day-night cycle, Solar Impulse proved the concept of an ‘eternal plane’ – given the right weather conditions it could stay in the air indefinitely (notwithstanding the needs of the pilot).
Are those records not a vindication of solar-powered vehicles? At the very least they are a great step forward, and an exciting milestone for an ever-evolving technology. Even the Wright brothers failed many times before the first manned flight. If the team get past their delay and complete the trip, they would have circumnavigated the globe using solar power, and travelled over 20,000 miles – surely making a case for further investment and research in the process.
Ultimately, human beings are fickle things and very vulnerable to confirmation bias. Whichever way you feel about solar power and renewables, you will likely see the story as validating your belief. A made-up mind is a difficult thing to change.
The lesson here is that a story can often be read either way, and though existing prejudices are often insurmountable barriers, the ‘swing voters’ of an issue can be swayed by how a story is reported. For renewables, it’s a sad fact that the naysayers will always make their voices heard, so it’s crucial that the solar industry invests in PR and communications efforts to ensure both sides of the argument are represented.