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Vail Daily column: Moving toward the sun

“In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” While not entirely accurate, this line from the 1949 movie “The Third Man” reiterates the stereotype of Switzerland as a tidy little country known for precision watches and private banking but not known for cultural or technological advances that influenced the world. Perhaps the derring-do of the Solar Impulse will change that perception.

The Solar Impulse aircraft will be stopping in Hawaii, Phoenix and New York later this summer. Currently Solar Impulse is in China after taking off from Abu Dhabi on March 9. It arrived at its first destination, Muscat, after 13 hours of flight averaging 33 kilometers per hour, and it did so without burning a drop of fossil fuel. Solar Impulse, piloted by Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, is attempting the first circumnavigation of the earth powered only by solar energy.

Solar Impulse is a Swiss project, but the funding for this venture came not from the Swiss government, but from the private sector, primarily Swiss companies. These are companies looking for ways to either decrease energy used in manufacturing or make their products more energy efficient and thus more competitive. One of the project’s main partners is ABB, the world’s largest maker of electricity grids.

As I write this, Solar Impulse is grounded in Chongqing due to unfavorable weather conditions on its next leg to Nanjing. High altitude clouds which interfere with the aircraft’s energy collection combined with strong cross winds have forced the team to repeatedly reschedule their planned departure.

The aircraft’s sensitivity to weather conditions makes it an unlikely candidate for the commercial aviation industry, but that is beside the point. The point is that if something as inventive and audacious as flying a plane around the world using nothing but the sun for power can be accomplished, then imagine what other ambitious projects are feasible using solar power. Moreover, the companies that collaborated to accomplish this feat will have a tremendous technological advantage and a strong stake in renewable energy leadership going forward.

In a recent editorial, Don Rogers speculated that solar energy’s ability to disrupt our reliance on fossil fuels might be 40 years away, or sooner, depending on technological breakthroughs. The road from discovery to commercial viability can be staggeringly long. Some innovations are actually quite old. Consider that Russian Oleg Losev created the first LED in 1927, 88 years ago. The first patents for LEDs would not be filed until the 1960s. LEDs would find employment as indicator lights on electronics for many years before breakthroughs such as white light as well as reductions in manufacturing costs would make LEDs practical for general illumination. Ikea plans to transition its lighting product line to all LED by 2016.

Obstructing new technology, especially technology that will bring comprehensive change such as the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy are not only scientific challenges, but also political opposition. First in Ohio and now in North Carolina, interests heavily invested in fossil fuels are trying to stall state efforts to nudge utilities toward generating power from renewable energy. Lindsay Abrams on Salon.com writes, “… Koch and fossil fuel-backed groups (are) working to defeat renewable energy mandates across the country.”

Alfred Nobel had the disconcerting opportunity to read his own obituary published erroneously upon the death of his brother Ludvig. He became concerned about his legacy when he read the words used to describe him, “the merchant of death.” Nobel revised his will and directed his vast fortune be used to create what have become the highest honors conferred in the world in the fields of literature, medicine, chemistry, physics and in the cause of peace. Today, Nobel is better known for his prestigious prizes rather than as the inventor of dynamite.

The merchants of coal, Charles and David Koch, on the other hand, seem entirely unconcerned that their legacy will be one of funding climate change denial and fighting renewable energy efforts at every turn. They are 80 and 75 years old, respectively. Short of a visit from the ghost of climate future, these two wealthy old men will continue to enhance their fortunes at the expense of our planet.

Leadership, handmaiden to power, abhors a vacuum. If America will not lead the way on renewable energy, then another country will step up. China already out-invests us and has greater market share in wind turbines and solar PV modules. The practical Swiss, unperturbed by petty U.S. politics, may discover a game-changing key that accelerates the inevitable transition. Move over cuckoo clocks, the Swiss fly solar planes.

Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be found online at clairenoble.org or follow her on Twitter @thewriteclaire.

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