Canadian Electrical Industry News Week

 

By Line Goyette

SolarSolar Impulse was the first solar-powered plane to fly around the world. It's to talk about this project I met with Conor Lennon, the Solar Impulse Project Manager for ABB, during the ABB Customer World in March earlier this year in Houston, Texas. I wanted to learn a little more about it.

“Imagine working on a project where the goalposts are constantly changing,” he said. “Now imagine the entire stadium is also moving, and you don’t know when, or where, it is going to be at any given time. If you’ve got that image down, you might start to have an idea of the sort of challenges faced by the Solar Impulse commercial partners during the project’s groundbreaking flight around the world (the first by a solar-powered plane).”

One difference made by the Solar Impulse project was to draw attention to the shifting energy mix. For those who would like to see renewable energy provide the world’s electricity needs, Solar Impulse has served as a huge inspiration. The project’s engineers have managed to accomplish what many, the airline industry included, considered impossible: fly a plane day and night using only solar energy. The project team has been the first to harness an intermittent source, the sun’s rays, to keep an electric plane in the air throughout the hours of darkness. They achieved this by achieving new heights of energy efficiency and building an effective battery storage system.
Before the trip began, what did you want to achieve?

“ABB and Solar Impulse entered an innovation and technology alliance in 2014, in which ABB committed resources including the expertise of its engineers to help accomplish the first-ever circumnavigation of the planet without fossil fuel.

“The alliance was about a vision in which ABB believes in and a technological partnership to make this happen. ABB is very proud to have been part of this vision. The world needs clean energy more than ever, both to power the present and to secure the future. For over a century, ABB has been pioneering sustainable energy solutions to support economic growth and improve quality of life, while minimizing environmental impact. As you saw at the Customer World conference, ABB is now driving the development of a smarter, greener power grid by enabling the integration of renewable energy and electric mobility, and producing energy efficient motors, drives, robots, and with our range of digitally connected ABB Ability solutions.”

How did the actual journey compare to your expectations?

“The flights showed that the aircraft handling qualities, performance and production quality in general were as expected, which is not obvious. Nevertheless the aircraft system in general got a lot more complex caused by several redundancies. Hence, lots more effort was spent on testing the backup modes of systems.

“Our primary purpose was not to revolutionize aviation, but the way in which people think about energy and clean technologies. If Solar Impulse technologies were used on a massive scale, the world would be able to save up to 50% of the current consumption of fossil energy and produce half of the rest with renewable energies. As for the aviation industry, it is well aware of its need to change. However, this cannot be done quite as drastically as with Solar Impulse. Our project involved zero fuel. Conventional aviation cannot switch straight to zero fuel. Intermediate steps are needed, such as using lighter materials, more direct routes, or approaching airports through constant descent rather than performing level landings. Aviation will be the final area of transport able to stop using fuel.”

How did the world react when the project was announced?

“There was a great reaction. ABB and Solar Impulse were perfect partners, with the common goal of addressing the world’s energy challenges through groundbreaking technological innovation. Solar Impulse showed what’s possible when one is willing to venture beyond the boundaries of the conventional; ABB shows how breakthrough innovation can be transformed into tangible technologies and solutions.”

What unexpected results/benefits did you encounter?

“ABB, through its products and projects, has long been helping its customers find ways to boost efficiency and reduce resource consumption, regardless of the industry in which they are active. And Solar Impulse was the ideal ambassador for helping cement this message in the minds and hearts of the broader public. Quite simply, Solar Impulse stands for an ideal that has become ABB’s credo: Running the world without consuming the earth.”


What aspect of the project exceeded your expectations?

“The media coverage of ABB’s alliance with Solar Impulse was overwhelmingly positive. Our social media traffic increased dramatically (250% on Twitter, 140% on Facebook), our media rating was 89% positive (the rest being neutral), and over 1,000 media articles referred to ABB and Solar Impulse.”

What has the project meant to you personally?

“It taught me never to accept that something about which you are passionate is impossible (and also that some people might find that attitude exasperating!). The Solar Impulse maxim that ‘failure is when you stop before you succeed’ has also stayed with me.”

How will the learning from the project, and the awareness it generated benefit the power generation industry?

“By joining forces, ABB and Solar Impulse have been able to strengthen the case for renewables and to demonstrate that economic growth, progress and quality of life can be maintained and improved without consuming unsustainable amounts of energy and polluting the environment.

“ABB’s alliance with Solar Impulse was both technological aspect and inspirational. ABB engineers were embedded in the Solar Impulse project, sharing know-how and technology, helping to extract maximum power yield from the solar panels and making sure the batteries were fully charged, while deploying ABB equipment to improve the reliability of the control system of the mobile hangar that housed the plane when it had to make unscheduled stops.”

Why is it important for organizations like ABB to support initiatives like this?

“Because ABB and Solar Impulse are passionate pioneers of leading-edge technology. ABB and Solar Impulse share a common vision of decoupling environmental impact from economic growth. Solar Impulse embodies ABB values that shape our culture. The mission underlines that ABB is a global leader for solutions to enable energy efficiency, sustainable transportation and renewable energy as solar is a key driver and contributor to the future energy system.”

What difference has ABB made to the project?

“ABB engineers were embedded in the Solar Impulse project, sharing know-how and technology, helping to extract maximum power yield from the solar panels and making sure the batteries were fully charged, while deploying ABB equipment to improve the reliability of the control system of the mobile hangar that housed the plane when it had to make unscheduled stops.”

What do you want people to take away from the Solar Impulse project?

“Solar Impulse was a truly historic and unprecedented undertaking, and one that demonstrates that with a pioneering spirit and technological innovation, we can solve the world’s biggest challenges. Solar Impulse brought message to life and to people all over the world in a highly visible, inspirational way.”

Conor Lennon, Global Manager for Special Projects at ABB, is a communications professional and broadcaster with over 15 years experience. Formerly a broadcast journalist and TV and radio presenter, he has worked for major broadcasters including the BBC and Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, as well as international organizations including UN agencies. Since working for ABB, he has overseen major projects, including the partnership with Solar Impulse.
Line Goyette is Managing Editor of EIN; linegoyette@kerrwil.com

Photo source: Jean Revillard/Solar Impulse.

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