So 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?