Flying on a solar impulse

By Eric Watkins

LOS ANGELES, April 2 – A team of two pilots plans to fly a solar-powered aircraft from Switzerland to Morocco in a couple of weeks, calling it a rehearsal in the run-up to the plane’s round-the-world flight in 2014.

“Flying as far as this, powered only by solar energy will be excellent training for the round-the-world trip,” said Andre Borschberg, co-founder and chief executive of Solar Impulse, the company behind the plan and the plane.

The Solar Impulse HB-SIA is the first aircraft that can fly day and night without fuel or polluting emissions, demonstrating the potential of new technologies in terms of energy reduction and the production of renewable energy.

The carbon fiber aircraft, which has the 63.4-meter wingspan of an Airbus A-340 and the weight of an average family car at 1,600 kg, is the result of what its backers say are “seven intense years of work, calculations, simulations and tests.”

The pending flight will also enable the mission team do some necessary prepping in procedures of coordinating with airports, integrating their plane into air traffic and providing the logistics for servicing the aircraft.


The venture, though, is more than just a flight and it’s even more than just a dress rehearsal for the longer mission in 2014. The coming air journey to Morocco will also serve to showcase that country’s new solar industry.

“The Kingdom of Morocco will welcome Solar Impulse in the spring of this year,” said an announcement issued by the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy, also known as MASEN.

In case you haven’t heard of it, MASEN is in charge of the implementation of the integrated Moroccan Solar Plan, which aims at developing a minimum power capacity of 2,000 MW by 2020.

By 2020, Morocco intends to build five solar complexes, not only generating the 2000 MW, but also eventually preventing the emission 3.7 million tons of CO2.

All of that could be a real boost to the economy of Morocco, which currently imports 97% of its energy needs.

The solar-thermal power plant in the region of Ouarzazate, which will have a capacity of 160 MW, is part of the solar complex, housing a range of solar installations which, by 2015, will generate a total of 500 MW.


Borschberg and fellow pilot Bertrand Piccard say their destination in Morocco fits their flight plans as well as the environmental aspirations expressed in their solar-powered flight.

“This destination corresponds fully with the goals we had set ourselves, in terms of distance and flight duration,” said Borschberg, adding that the pair did not have “a moment’s hesitation in accepting the idea of working with Morocco.”

Picard said the two fliers are full of admiration for the vision of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and the “intelligent energy policy” adopted by his country.

“We are delighted to support it,” Piccard said. “Theirs is a pioneering project, which clearly demonstrates that the clean technologies we are promoting with Solar Impulse also have a role to play in everyday life.”

Piccard and Borschberg are not the only ones supporting King Mohammed and his solar plan. Even the World Bank is behind it, approving $297 million in loans to Morocco to help finance the solar project at Ouarzazate.

World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick said that Ouarzazate demonstrates Morocco’s commitment to low-carbon growth and could demonstrate the enormous potential of solar power in the Middle East and North Africa.


“This solar project could advance the potential of the technology, create many new jobs across the region, assist the European Union to meet its low-carbon energy targets, and deepen economic and energy integration in the Mediterranean,” said Zoellick, calling the project “a multiple winner.”

The 500 MW Ouarzazate solar complex will be among the largest Concentrated Solar Power plants in the world, and international observers say it is “an important step” in Morocco’s national plan to deploy 2000 MW of solar power generation capacity by 2020.

The United Nations agrees, and sees Morocco’s project as a good role model for other countries to follow.

“The inauguration of its initial phase costing $200 million by the World Bank, and $97 million from the Clean Technology Fund has placed Morocco in good stead to a realize an energy future which could show the way for other countries struggling to honor their commitment to climate change,” the UN said.

So, the Solar Impulse will be doing a little more than just making an historical flight when it lands at Ouarzazate in a few weeks’ time. It also will be showcasing the potential of a whole new industry for Morocco, North Africa and the wider world.

© Glamma Productions 2012

About Eric Watkins

Eric Watkins is a consultant specializing in oil diplomacy. A former journalist, Mr. Watkins's work has appeared in numerous leading publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Financial Times, and specialist media such as Oil & Gas Journal, Middle East Economic Survey (MEES), and Lloyd's List.
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