Bertrand Piccard, the man who flew around the world in a solar-powered airplane, will be taking another trip around the world. This time he will show governments 1,000 innovations that together will make it possible to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by half. “I want to show that it is possible and profitable for countries to be much more ambitious in their climate policies”, says Piccard, who considers this the second phase of his Solar Impulse adventure.
“Today we already have enough solutions to divide our energy consumption by half and limit global warming to just one degree Celsius. But they are not on the market. They are owned by startups, universities, even big companies. But nobody knows about them, so they are not used. We have to get them out of the shadow. That will be my mission for the next few years of my life.”
Bertrand Piccard is a man who needs little introduction. He achieved world fame last year when he became the first person, together with his partner André Borschberg, to fly around the world in a solar-powered airplane, the Solar Impulse. The daring 59-year old Swiss aviator, balloonist and psychiatrist, now has a new goal, which he calls “the second phase of Solar Impulse”. With his World Alliance for Efficient Solutions, he wants to transform the way the world uses energy.
“People think that protecting the environment will be a threat to economic growth, mobility and comfort. That may have been true ten years ago. It is not true anymore today”
Piccard: “Working together with startups, universities, companies, and international institutions, we want to have 1,000 solutions by the end of next year, which we will show to governments around the world. Yes, I will go on another round-the-world trip. Our goal is to make governments aware that they can be much more ambitious in their climate and energy policies. Indeed, that ambitious policies are not only needed to combat climate change, but that they are the key to economic growth, jobs, profits and opportunities.”
The solutions that Piccard’s World Alliance is looking for have to do two things, he says: protect the environment – and be profitable economically. “What we will offer is assessments of the solutions by experts. Relations with investors. And we will promote them in the media and to political and corporate decision-makers.”
Hundreds of innovations
How does Piccard know the solutions are out there? “Oh, we see them everywhere. There is no lack. For example, the other day I was in France where I visited a company called Eco-tech Ceram. They have invented a process to store and transport heat in ceramic blocks. They use industrial waste heat to heat up the blocks to 1,000 degrees, then transport them in insulated containers to where they can be used, for example to heat houses or hospitals, or even to make electricity.”
Another example is a company that has invented a way to desalinate water with solar power. “For desalination you normally need a stable current. But this company has found a way to do it with an unstable current. And it works.”
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Then there is the company that has invented a solar cell that produces both electricity and heat. “Really interesting, because it can be used for heating purposes, which is where more energy goes to than to electricity.”
There is the big company Covestro that has found a way to produce chlorine with 30% less energy. “Chlorine is one of the biggest products in the world, so this represents a huge saving.”
And there is Solvay, the chemical company, which has developed a product, called Silica, consisting of little pieces of glass, that if used in car tyres lead to 6% less fuel use.
“There are hundreds of such innovations”, says Piccard. “But most of them are not known by the public or policymakers. So what you see is that they negotiate targets and rules that represent a lowest common denominator. They are afraid to do more because they think that protecting the environment will be a threat to economic growth, mobility and comfort. That may have been true ten years ago. It is not true anymore today.”
Pulled, not pushed
Piccard is convinced that what is needed to get the solutions into the market is pull factors – i.e. policies – rather than push factors. “Innovation has to be pulled, not pushed. At this moment we tend to push innovation with public money, with subsidies. The result is that we get solutions, but they are not being used.”
The main bottleneck is that the current legal framework is not conducive to get innovations into the market, says Piccard. “There are very few restrictions on putting CO2 in the air or wasting energy or natural resources. The solutions are there, but there is no need to use them. There is a moral need, an ecological need, but not a legal need.”
“Innovation has to be pulled, not pushed”
He gives the example of car emission standards. “Right now you are allowed to emit 130 gram CO2 per kilometre in Switzerland, which is ridiculous. You can easily go to 60, 65 grams. Policymakers should adopt a standard of, say, 40 grams. Then carmakers will be obliged to use the solutions.
The same goes for buildings. It is possible to build energy neutral buildings. Authorities should be much more ambitious on this. They will if they realise it is actually good for the economy to do so.”
Most people only change when they are faced with a crisis – or when there is some personal advantage to doing so, says Piccard. “If we want to avoid a crisis, then we must make sure that people will see the advantage of replacing our outdated energy systems with new ones. That this will bring growth. What we want to do is not just ecological, it’s also logical.”
Piccard says he is “optimistic about the future” when he sees all the solutions that exist and the people with vision who are prepared to carry them through, such as the Mayor of Paris, who has announced that she doesn’t want conventional cars anymore in the city (diesel by 2024 and gasoline by 2030), or the King of Morocco, who has adopted a 52% renewable energy target for 2030.
“Targets for 2050 are too far away”, notes Piccard. “They are set for 2050 because then nobody who is responsible now will be around by then.”
He is also impressed with the vision and goodwill of the European Commission, with whom he works a lot.
But he is pessimistic when he is confronted with the time it takes for people to understand what needs to be done – and to start doing it. “There is so much inertia. In Europe many member states are resisting energy transition. They still think protecting the environment hurts the economy.”
Even if you don’t care about or believe in climate change, changing the energy system is beneficial, says Piccard. “To develop new infrastructure, smart grids, electric mobility, energy-neutral buildings, heat pumps, new industrial processes – it’s the only way to create growth. Take electric cars. If we don’t build them, the Chinese will invade us with cheap electric cars and wipe out the European car industry. We have to move fast.”
Plus there are also what Piccard calls “the hidden gains” from more efficient energy use. “The health benefits for example, they are huge. When you invest in charging stations for EVs you save on health costs.” To understand this, requires an overview of the energy system. “You can’t look at things separately. You need to look at how they relate to each other.”
For Piccard the way to achieve results is to get as many people as possible on board. “Even the oil and gas companies are starting to be allies. They are not bad people and they know that they have to diversify their business. I want to bring people together instead of separating them. We need to make alliances, not conflicts.”
Piccard on the future of electric airplanes and cars
Although Bertrand Piccard became famous for flying around the world in a solar-powered aircraft, which produced its own energy while flying, he does not believe that such airplanes will be commercially available any time soon. Instead where he sees fast progress is in electric airplanes that use batteries that have been charged on the ground or fuel cells with hydrogen.
“This type of electric plane is coming very very fast. When I landed the Solar Impulse I said electric planes for 50 passengers would be here in 10 years. Many people laughed at that. Now an American company has promised one for 150 passengers in ten years. All the big players – Airbus, Boeing, NASA – are working on electric planes.”
With cars, the story is probably the same, says Piccard. “Production and consumption of energy will most likely be separated. If you have a pure solar car, you have a lot of limits. If you put solar panels on the roof of your house, you can charge the batteries of your car more easily. You can also produce hydrogen this way, which can be put in a fuel cell that will drive an electric motor. Hyundai has a hydrogen fuel cell car with an electric engine, which produces no emissions and no noise.”
Piccard himself drives a fully electric Hyundai. “Once you drive electric you don’t want to drive anything else. It’s so smooth. This is not going into the past. It’s a jump into the future.”
Source: Energy Post. Reproduced with permission.