As the round-the-world flight of the solar-powered Solar Impulse 2 steadily approaches, aviation industry leaders are examining the potential incorporation of solar energy into their operations.
Although major aircraft manufacturers have recently explained that a fully solar powered commercial aircraft is not currently economically or technologically feasible, companies are keenly interested in using solar for on-board operations once an aircraft has reached a cruising altitude. Today, the commercial viability of a solar powered aircraft like the Solar Impulse 2 is hindered for many reasons, among them slow flying speeds, low altitude requirements, passenger limitations, and high construction costs. The real potential that emerges from the Solar Impulse 2 flight is in the technologies embedded in the aircraft, such as its efficient motors, lightweight materials, and energy dense batteries, which can be utilized in the aviation industry as well as in various other industries to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, among other benefits.
Airports are another frontier for solar. Solar energy is being integrated into airport systems, such as those at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, to support ground operations. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration's Voluntary Airport Low Emissions (VALE) program, initiated in 2004, has seen an uptick in the number of solar projects.
However, the use of solar panels in the aviation industry is not without its obstacles. Glare caused by solar panels is becoming a consistent complaint by commercial pilots, most notably from one of the world's largest solar facilities, located near the Las Vegas, Nevada airport. Glare has also been noted as a further complicating factor for installations of solar panels on airport rooftops and grounds. Although a solar powered commercial aircraft may not be feasible at this time, the Solar Impulse 2 flight highlights other ways in which the aviation industry can and is using solar energy.
Special thanks to Emma Spath who assisted in the preparation of this post.