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The Solar-Powered Plane and the U.S. Economy

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solar planeSo many things are solar-powered now, from home electronics (via rooftop solar panels) to bikinis. There’s an entire industry dedicated to making solar-powered anything and everything. Hikers can purchase backpacks with solar power so they can charge their iPods while trekking in the mountains. Even entire homes can be powered via solar energy, cutting energy bills in half or practically eliminating them altogether in some cases.

Solar Impulse, a leading company in solar-powered flight technology, flew the longest successful solar-powered flight on the morning of Monday, June 3 from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to a landing early the next day at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. André Borschberg, a mechanical engineer and pilot who helped lead the construction of the airplane, stated: “We need to find a way to build an aircraft that is super-robust and super-light at the same time, and above all extremely energy-efficient, so as to need only minuscule amounts of energy in order to fly.” Current commercial air travel is a leading cause of pollution and leaves a heavy carbon footprint. Solar planes with more energy-efficient standards would help address that problem. The Solar Impulse plane has a cockpit about the size of a typical storage container, along with other ultra-efficient design innovations.

One underlying question is whether this debut flight system will benefit or damage the transportation sector of the U.S. economy.

The Affordability Issue

Solar-powered planes aren’t a brand new idea, with the first short-stop flight taking place in 2009. However, when that first U.S. solar-powered plane took flight, it was meant more for the record books than for anything practical. It wasn’t until the 2012 intercontinental flight between Spain and Morocco that these sustainable devices really caught everyone’s attention. Nobody can go to Orbitz quite yet and choose a solar-powered flight, and as with like any new technology, plenty of people are wary of it anyway. So the question is, will solar-powered flights make travel more affordable?

That question has yet to be answered since solar-powered flights are still in testing stages. But these options should cost less money, which could greatly benefit the transportation system, which in turn would greatly affect the U.S. economy. There’s no petroleum being used, which is a big factor in the cost of any flight. On the other hand, maintenance fees may be costlier, and even once they become mainstream solar-powered planes will likely be more expensive to construct. Choosing a solar-powered flight might end up being considered an eco-luxury and costing more than traditional petroleum-powered flights.

The Exclusivity Appeal

It’s no secret that Americans are willing to pay more for going green, even while still recovering from a recession. Farmers’ markets are busy every weekend, and retailers that stress organic or healthy food like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are expanding. Even when the economy is shaky, Americans are willing to spend more if it gives them that do-gooder glow, which is great news for the solar plane industry.

The widespread development of solar-powered planes could provide a great boost to the economy. If travelers are willing to pay more for the green privilege and to be one of the first to travel via solar energy, that might kickstart further spending on strategies for solving the air pollution and environmental issues. As people are getting more fed up with canceled flights, reduced service and legroom, and fees for checked baggage, any new idea in flight technology will be appealing, but how it’s played will make a huge difference.

Almost There (and Paying for It)

While the average Joe or Jane can’t take off in a solar-powered plane yet, that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to drive revenue from these high-tech machines. Some companies, such as Solar Impulse, offer visitors the opportunity to watch flights take off. The popular Phoenix to Dallas flight is garnering a lot of attention, with many people tuning in online to watch the action. This isn’t making the company millions, but it means great publicity and a very real opportunity to rev up the economy through this brand new industry.

Right now, solar-powered commercial flight still seems like a futuristic dream, but that’s the best time for visionary companies to cash in on the novelty factor. Undoubtedly, people will be lining up to be one of the first to travel gas-free. However, just like anything else, after a while prices should drop with the law of supply and demand, and that’s when the majority of future solar travelers will take advantage of it.

Which Direction is Best: Affordability or Luxury?

There are two clear directions that can be taken when it comes to solar power: it can either create more accessibility for travel with lower rates, or it can remain a green luxury with more expensive tickets than even traditional first class. Which avenue is best for the economy? There’s no way to know at this point what kind of ticket prices will be profitable for an airline, but there will surely be some wiggle room, especially when it comes to the type of luxury amenities offered.

If the direction is eco-luxury, this will keep a lot of people from being able to afford sustainable travel. However, it’s quite possible that there will be a big enough demand, even at high prices, to make this the right move for the airlines. The Tesla, the most expensive hybrid car on the market, has a base price around $70,000 for moderate luxury amenities and the company experienced over 150 percent growth in 2013. Clearly, there’s a big market for green luxury.

What About the Other Airlines?

Will new solar-powered airlines have what it takes to give traditional airlines a run for their money, or are traditional airlines gearing up to include solar-powered planes in their fleets? Only time will tell, but it will likely play out similarly to how the auto industry has responded to hybrids. There will always be people who prefer petroleum travel, as long as it remains available, and down the road more manufacturers will start designing both petroleum- and solar-powered machines. Of course, in the beginning the few solar-powered planes will be elite and set the standard.

There’s likely no risk of airlines going out of business solely because of the influx of solar-powered planes. The airline industry has its own bevy of problems ranging from poor customer service and publicity to skyrocketing extra fees that, while perhaps necessary to make a profit, make customers unhappy. The solar-powered cousins will likely be an addition to the industry and not a replacement for tried and tested machines.

Though it’s too soon to tell just how much impact these green flights will make, solar-powered planes have the potential to be a great economic engine. The demand is definitely there, but will the manufacturers and airlines be able to deliver?

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About Jenna Cyprus

Jenna is a freelance writer who loves the outdoors; especially camping while relaxing with her family.
  • John Lake

    You grabbed my attention early on, the third line in fact! Actually the solar power emanates from the bikini to cell phone, I-Pod, whatever. Neat.

    • Rob Knaggs

      Thanks, John, I was wondering…
      Makes sense in the context of the hand-held devices that almost invariably accompany their owners to the beach near my home nowadays.

    • John Lake

      I might have made that image considerably smaller…

  • Rob Knaggs

    The average speed of the Solar Impulse aircraft is about 55 m.p.h., and even the fastest solar-powered car yet built can barely top 100. So I have a feeling that if a solar airline is going to be commercially successful, at least for the foreseeable future, it’s going to have to have a different business model: marketing itself on reliability, comfort, affordability and efficiency rather than the ability to get you from A to B as quickly as possible.

    • John Lake

      Space craft, which move in a vacuum, can steadily increase their speeds almost indefinitely with solar powered “sails” to propel them.

      • Rob Knaggs

        Well, that’s true, John, but they don’t work on the same principle as solar cells. Solar sails are also not really applicable to aircraft that operate in an atmosphere. Air pressure and resistance cancel out the pressure of light by many orders of magnitude.

        Also, it takes a solar powered spacecraft a rather long time to reach a high velocity: even disregarding the atmosphere, this isn’t really a selling point for a form of transportation one of whose traditional strengths is speed…

        And of course none of this takes into account the rotation of the Earth, which results in nights occurring with inconvenient frequency and would make it impossible, whether we were endowed with an atmosphere or not, to operate a solar sail-powered vehicle on or near the ground!

        • John Lake

          I sometimes think that college students who devote time to quantum physics, sub-atomic particles, black-holes
          and big bangs would do better to study bio-chemistry, and storage batteries, which will on development, change much of what we have for the better.

          • Rob Knaggs

            So, John, you’re one of those folks who, like the Republicans on the House Science Committee, would prefer only those areas of science with a demonstrable economic or social benefit get funded?

            If you like, as an exercise, I can give you a list of research projects and you can decide which ones are worthy and which are a waste of time and money.

          • John Lake

            In fact my concern was not for the economy but for the students. Few will work at universities studying abstract physics. They may have a bright future working for the medical community, or designing better batteries for modern devices.

          • Rob Knaggs

            You’re conflating physics with medicine and engineering – all completely different disciplines and it doesn’t follow that someone with an aptitude and interest for one field would have it for either of the others.

          • John Lake

            The general sphere of science takes precedence. The key in many of the issues discussed here-in is the need ASAP for new and more economic and powerful batteries.

            The earlier remarks had to do with the potential benefit of young scientists to pursue practical applications, rather than mathematical theories that may not come into play for hundreds of years, and that, if we still are at our home on Earth.

          • Rob Knaggs

            But that’s exactly the point, John. How do you tell before the work has been done that any discoveries arising from that work will be beneficial?

            As I said, along with the Republicans on the House Science Committee, you misunderstand the fundamental point of doing science.

          • John Lake

            My understanding of modern physics is
            geared toward the empirical. However I find it unlikely that the study of the
            beginning of time, and the study of sub-sub atomic particles — strings or
            loops — will yield enough to warrant a lot of research. I suspect that if the
            human race lasts another ten thousand years, we will still not see time
            travel.

            We may see mining of asteroids, and there may be military
            applications of traditional scientific principles.

            But since your interest runs toward solar powered aircraft,
            it occurs to me you might agree that today’s work might be well spent directed
            toward solar cells, and storage batteries.

            I add bio-chemistry because that is an important and
            challenging study that will benefit people today.

          • Rob Knaggs

            I do agree that research into alternative energy of all kinds should be encouraged, John. But asking physicists to do it makes no sense. It’s as if you were to tell a psychology major that it would be of greater benefit to society if he went to nursing school instead.

      • G. Damon Taylor

        SF genius Larry Niven wrote a lot about solar sails, and “starseeds.” I’ll bet ten quatloos that you already know this, John. But Niven deserves a shout-out for all the happiness he’s given readers.

    • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

      Slow travel kills this on a commercial scale. But maybe they could serve as cheap research ships?

  • Bryan Allen

    This article is an interesting exercise in… something, but it’s certainly not historically accurate. DuPont got quite a bit of publicity for the piloted solar-powered piloted airplanes it sponsored. One of them flew basically from Paris to London – in 1981! Go to the Wikipedia page titled “solar-powered flight” to see the long history of solar-powered airplanes. Solar Impulse is a regressive step away from practicality, with its one purpose being to attempt an around-the-world flight. And, well, serve as a promotional vehicle for its team and sponsors. Check out Eric Raymond’s “Sunseeker”, which he flew across the USA twenty-three years ago, and his new “Sunseeker Duo” for a better idea of where solar aviation is going.

    Oh, and we’ll probably see solar-powered transit buses long before we see solar-powered airliners. And the likelihood of solar-powered buses becoming widespread is vanishingly small!

  • Steve Morris

    It strikes me that if we had to stop using fossil fuels for everything except one purpose, then that purpose would be transport, where high energy density is critical.

    • Rob Knaggs

      Even most transport will eventually not use fossil fuels, although air is probably going to be the last segment of the industry that does.
      Electric trains (most of which do still get their power indirectly from fossil fuels but don’t have to) are commonplace, electric buses are a frequent sight in many cities, and nuclear-powered ships have been around for decades. For ships, there’s also good old wind power and there are a few solar-powered vessels out there.
      The auto industry has begun its transition away from petroleum and I imagine that within about a decade there will be a hybrid or fully electric option available for most retail models.

  • bliffle

    As hopeful as I am for solar power, I nevertheless doubt that we will ever see solar airliners capable of carrying hundreds of people at near-sonic speeds.

  • G. Damon Taylor

    What a wonderful article about a half-baked idea. All great leaps in technology were half-baked at first, but further baking had good results. If battery and solar power technology had received the funding it needed from the beginning, many things would be different. BTW, that is surely a funny-looking plane; but so are most novel ideas that work, such as the pedal-powered plane.

  • bliffle

    This summer a solar powered boat “PlanetSolar”, is prowling the Atlantic between Europe and the USA. It’s a trimaran about 100 feet long and 50 feet wide, covered with solar cells, and manned by a 4 man crew. Looks kind of like a futuristic aircraft carrier. Cost about $10million, backed by some European millionaires and involving the famous Piccard family of explorers.

    This idea has some valid short-term possibilities since there are plenty of applications that could use slow low-cost shipping, and even some passenger applications. You can imagine them yourself.

    The official website is at “planetsolar.org”, but a google search will turn up many more interesting reports on this project.

  • http://www.hotelurbano.com.br/ Rickeytard

    great work friend.