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Imagine climbing into the cockpit of an airplane the weight of a medium-sized car and the wingspan of an Airbus 340. And then imagine taking off without a drop of fuel on board. Sam Shepard can, unless my eyes deceive me.
They do indeed deceive (sadly) but Andre Borschberg is a dead ringer for the star of The Right Stuff, that famous movie about test pilots pushing back the limits of the impossible. Andre is also a test pilot and also pushing hard against those limits flying Solar Impulse, the first experimental solar-powered plane. I was there to watch Andre bring it into Rabat, Morocco on its first intercontinental flight from Switzerland recently.
For Andre and his partner, co-pilot and founder of Solar Impulse, Bertrand Piccard, it was their first stop-over on the African continent before heading south to Ouarzazate on the hot side of the Atlas Mountains. So here they came, out of the cockpit in those impressive flight suits and helmets claiming victory with a casual smile like those Right Stuff pilots when they climbed out of their crazy rocket-powered test plane that broke the sound barrier. The press waiting on the Rabat-Sale airport tarmac were delighted: what an image. Me, my knees were quite weak.
Solar Impulse is majestic. It looks a bit weird at first but its aerodynamics have a dragonfly aesthetic and its ultra-lightweight hi-tech design is powered by 12,000 solar cells in the wings that drive four 10-horsepower motors. Those solar panels also charge lithium batteries during the day which allows the sun-driven plane to fly all night. The only part of the story which is less amazing is the speed: at an average of 48 kilometers per hour, the graceful Solar Impulse is no rocket.
But rocket power is not the point. Solar Impulse is a courageous and imaginative feat but is also about a greater message. It has landed in Morocco because this country is launching one of the most ambitious solar plans in the world. Ouarzazate, the next stop on the flight plan, is home to the beginnings of a 500-MW solar power plant, one of the largest plants of its kind.
The long frail wings of Solar Impulse also bear a strong message about the destiny that links us all, across borders and economic size, if nothing is done to protect our planet, reduce greenhouse gases and promote clean energies. The ambition of the Ouarzazate solar plant, managed by the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy, MASEN, is to become an energy-production hub not only for the domestic market but for its northern neighbors in Europe.
I’ve worked in Morocco for nearly three years as part of a World Bank team supporting Morocco’s vision of clean energy in the development of concentrated solar power. I see Morocco as a pioneer of clean energy in Africa and a visionary not just in the region but worldwide. For me this is the Right Stuff and I’m really proud to have worked with other Bank colleagues to help MASEN realize Morocco’s solar dream.
And I have to whip out my Ray bans when I watch Solar Impulse because it brings tears to my eyes. Human imagination in flight. See for yourself.