For this Friday the 13th afternoon we bring you a bit of time travel. Or: travel that takes a lot of time. Or travel that took a lot of light years.
And it really might just also be a glimpse into the future. Today, the world’s first solar-powered plane is making its maiden international flight. The Solar Impulse has the wingspan of a 747 and the weight of a family car, and has already flown in test flights – including at night. After six years of development and three of testing, the conditions today were just right for the one-seater prototype to test out its capacity to navigate international air traffic control – and it took off at 6.40 to make the journey from Switzerland, through Luxembourg to Belgium.
One of the most carbon-intensive activities we do is air travel (and the trails planes leave behind them are just as polluting as the carbon they emit). It’s expensive and, with rising fuel prices and economic austerity, fares and taxes are rising, while the number of flights falls. Airlines are going bust.
At the Energy Saving Trust we are working to cut emissions from transport. We teach lots of drivers smarter driving techniques (including how not to waste fuel carrying around a lot of weight you don’t need, such as with a too-big car). We are following the development of the electric car market with keen interest. Car travel is every day, of course, and plane trips are special occasions for most of us. But one holiday flight can emit as much carbon as three months’ driving – and that’s just the carbon!
So, why not solar-powered planes? This might be like the days of Bleriot, or Wilbur and Orville Wright, of Amelia Earhart or ‘Lucky Lindy’, when heroes took to the skies and opened up a new passage around the world. In future decades, when we board our solar-powered flights (the only affordable option because of carbon taxes and fuel costs), we may just be invoking the historic names of Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg.