Why you should care about Solar Impulse and renewable energy’s long, long journey

It has now been more than 45 days since Solar Impulse took off from San Francisco for an across-the-nation journey powered only by the sun, and already there’s fatigue in some corners. When Solar Impulse finally landed in Washington, DC this weekend, there were no jubilant crowds of the type that met Charles Lindbergh when he arrived in Paris after his epic transatlantic flight.

Members of the media look at the solar powered Solar Impulse plane during a media availability at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va., Monday, June 17, 2013. The black panels seen across the top of the plane are over 10,000 solar cells that power the plane. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Members of the media look at the solar powered Solar Impulse plane during a media availability at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va., Monday, June 17, 2013. The black panels seen across the top of the plane are over 10,000 solar cells that power the plane. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In fact, if you’re not getting regular e-mails from the Solar Impulse team or following along on social media in real-time, there’s a good chance that you missed the landing of Bertrand Piccard at Washington Dulles International Airport – it was just past midnight eastern time on Sunday, a time when most of the nation was already asleep.

If you were asleep, and the news passed you by, stop for a second and take stock. There’s a reason you should care — and care deeply — about the journey of Solar Impulse.

There’s more to the story than a funky solar-powered craft that looks like “an outsized balsa wood toy airplane”. Solar Impulse’s journey, in many ways, is a microcosm of our nation’s love/hate relationship with renewable energy. We love the promise of clean energy and celebrate the arrival of the latest green gizmos, but we have very little patience for renewable energy strategies that take years, if not decades, to pay off. Our ability to embrace the journey of a zero-fuel airplane over a sustained, 45-day flight from San Francisco to Washington offers a gut-check: Are we, as a nation, able to sustain the march to a zero-fuel economy.

Bertrand Piccard holds up a model of "Solar Impulse". (Roberto Pfeil/dapd)
Bertrand Piccard holds up a model of “Solar Impulse”. (Roberto Pfeil/dapd)

From the outset, the Across America mission from San Francisco to Washington (and then on to New York City) was about bringing awareness of clean energy technologies to America while celebrating the innovative spirit that challenges what is possible in today’s world. There’s a reason why the two pilots of the Solar Impulse plane – Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg – award each city they visit with a “Clean Generation” flag to celebrate that city’s embrace of clean technology. The Solar Impulse plane itself is a symbol of how renewable energy is a movement as much as a technology.

It may be easy to minimize the accomplishments of an airplane that took 45 days to reach the Right Coast from the Left Coast. But think of what the Solar Impulse team accomplished. They proved that an airplane could make the coast-to-coast trip at day or night — in other words, with or without the sun. They also proved the resilience of two men who could pilot an airplane for upwards of 24 hours at a time – the next time you take a summer road trip, just count the number of times you’re tempted to take a break after just a few hours of driving. And they did this while finding solutions to counter the conditions of Mother Nature – strong headwinds, for example, forced the Solar Impulse team to make an unplanned pit stop in Cincinnati before continuing on to Washington.

More importantly, Solar Impulse’s flight across America could unlock the future potential of solar energy. There’s a reason why the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum welcomed the arrival of Solar Impulse in Washington with open arms, and why Department of Energy chief Ernest Moniz said the journey highlighted “a cleaner energy future for the nation.” The technologies aboard Solar Impulse could be used in the air as well as on the ground to power the next generation of clean technologies – greener cars, cleaner appliances and more energy-efficient buildings. Moniz also pointed out ways that Solar Impulse could lead to better solar panels, better batteries (capable of storing the energy of the sun at night), and better, lighter materials.

Solar Impulse, a solar-powered airplane with a wingspan of 208 ft, similar to a Boeing 747, is parked in its inflatable hangar at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Erik M.Lunsford )
Solar Impulse, a solar-powered airplane with a wingspan of 208 ft, similar to a Boeing 747, is parked in its inflatable hangar at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Erik M.Lunsford )

So, as the Solar Impulse team prepares for a journey around the world in 2015 that will include a voyage across the Atlantic and Pacific, let’s focus as much on the Journey as on the Jump. We live in a world where, as Seth Godin writes, we “get it” after reading a 140-character updates and watching 6-second videos. But that means ongoing narratives about the remarkable achievements in renewable energy sometimes get lost in our daily news feeds. So, we sometimes lose sight of the long-term impact one success story may have on another group of innovators located somewhere halfway around the globe. Sometimes the innovation story – even when it features a solar-powered plane traversing America or a solar-powered boat circling the world’s oceans – is not as easy to “get” as we might think.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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