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6.11.2010 We Have the Technology to End Our Dependence on Fossil Fuels

By Christoph Seidler

Bertrand Piccard has been working on a solar-powered plane for almost a decade and hopes to fly it around the world in 2013. He spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE about ending the world's addiction to fossil fuels, the aviation industry's need to change and how he plans to stay awake during the round-the-world flight.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have been working on a solar-powered airplane for almost 10 years. But not a single tourist or business traveler will ever fly in your plane. What's the point of the project?

Bertrand Piccard: To be frank, the airplane is not the most important thing to me. It is a means to an end. The message is the important thing -- that's what I've been working on for over the last 10 years. It is only because of this project that people listen to me when I speak about the things that matter to me. I want to make clear that we have the technology today to end our dependence on fossil fuels.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Which is why your plane relies on solar power.

Piccard: Yes, and we did not have to develop new solar cells or batteries. Basically, we utilize technologies that you can use in your house, your car or wherever. Of course it is difficult to build a solar-powered plane that flies day and night. You have to optimize some things.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But there will be no technological spin-offs from the project?

Piccard: Everything is already there. Spin-offs are not important to me. I want to make sure that the people out there follow our adventure and understand that they can save energy and that they can use alternative power sources -- just like we do.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: To spread this message, you have become something of an itinerant preacher around the globe.

Piccard: I can reach millions of people a year through interviews and presentations. I would also like to exert an influence on political decisions. For example, I would love to speak to the delegates of the next United Nations climate conference in Mexico.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What would you tell them if you got the opportunity?

Piccard: That the current debate is missing the point. We should not speak only about the costs of adapting to climate change. Our problem is not climate change but our dependence on fossil fuels. If you reframe it like this, you understand that there are lots of solutions to the problem. And these opportunities are profitable. It is not a question of costs anymore, but of profits.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: After the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit, it seems that a lot of the momentum for saving the climate has dissipated -- even if you present it as a job-creation machine.

Piccard: Nobody these days would find it acceptable to simply empty their trash can in the forest. But at the same time you are allowed to emit as much CO2 into the atmosphere as you want. Is this normal? Countries have to agree on ambitious rules to protect the climate. We need strict limits on energy consumption and CO2 emissions. But we should not tell industry how to reach these goals. They will find the best methods.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A lot of managers don't share your desire for strict rules on energy consumption and climate protection.

Piccard: There are stupid people everywhere, that's for sure. If General Motors, for example, had been obliged to produce more fuel-efficient cars 10 years ago, they would not have gone bankrupt. It's not a question of regulating companies out of business, but of making them able to survive.

Part 2: 'You Are Totally on Your Own in the Cockpit'

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The airline industry has a particularly big problem when it comes to the environment. Do industry leaders understand that their survival is at stake?

Piccard: They understand the magnitude of the problem. But they have no idea what to do about it. When oil prices go up, they will be in big trouble. You need to reduce the weight of planes; you need to have more direct routes; you need to make continuous descent approaches, which reduce fuel consumption. Everybody has known this for years. But not much has happened.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your plane Solar Impulse will fly only 70 kilometers per hour (43 miles per hour) on average. Could slower flying speeds also save fuel for commercial airliners?

Piccard: In principle, yes. It is something of a paradox. Everybody wants to fly as fast as possible. But should oil prices rise above $200 (€166) per barrel, you will eventually have to reduce speed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Had you used fuel cells for your plane, you would surely have aided the airline industry more than you have. In that scenario, passengers might have been able to fly with the technology one day -- in contrast to the solar plane that you have built.

Piccard: I did think about fuel cells in the beginning. But solar cells are more consistent with our goals. We want to change people's behavior. We don't want to change the airline industry.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Solar Impulse has made five test flights so far. Why have you not flown a single one of them?

Piccard: Our German test pilot Markus Scherdel is much better trained for the job. He is both a pilot and an engineer; as such, he helps to make the plane better. Flying stability has improved a lot. My associate André Borschberg has already taken his first flight. And in the next two or three weeks, I plan to enter the cockpit myself.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you planning on making the first night flight, when your plane will have to use energy stored up during daylight hours?

Piccard: Either André Borschberg or myself will do it. We will decide at the last minute. We plan to start sometime around June 21. And if it doesn't work the first time, we will just have to keep trying. We can't fly around the world if the plane does not stay in the air at night. It's as simple as that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If everything goes well, you plan to fly around the world in 2013. Why are you planning on making five stops on the way?

Piccard: There is only room for one pilot. You are totally on your own in the cockpit. And nobody can stay awake for 20 days in a row. After five days of travelling alone, things get a bit dangerous. That's when we want to change pilots.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you plan to keep alert during the flight?

Piccard: I will use meditation and self-hypnosis. And apart from that, there will be an autopilot that permits sleeping, at least for short periods of time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There will not even be room for a toilet in the small cabin. How will you solve that problem?

Piccard: With plastic bags.