The Sun-Powered Plane That Set Solar Energy Back 50 Years


Just on concept alone, solar power is a pretty easy sell. Who doesn't want to harness the power of the sun like an Egyptian god or the Kool-Aid Thirsties? Heck, just stick Superman on whatever box solar panels come in and you're good to go. It's hard to screw up something that could run your car for free, which makes what we're about to show you that much more incredible.

The Sun-Powered Plane That Set Solar Energy Back 50 Years
AP / Solar Impulse

Gasoline doesn't look so bad now, does it?

Everyone meet the Solar Impulse HB-SIA, the first solar-powered airplane to fly overnight without any need for fuel. On May 1, its sister plane, the HB-SIB, will make aviation history by traveling from San Francisco to New York City, completely on Ra's dime, in an effort to promote the merits of solar energy.

The only problem is that it's terrible.

The Sun-Powered Plane That Set Solar Energy Back 50 Years
Justin Sullivan / Getty

The sun god's new chariot doesn't boast enough elbow room to seat a 9-year-old.

No, really. While there's totally nothing more awesome than conquering the skies in future-crafts, this isn't one of them. In fact, as far as demonstrating the power of solar energy goes, they could have named this thing the Chevron Sky Clown and gotten better results.

Why? For starters, the thing probably would work better as a method of prisoner execution than a means of travel. Since solar power, while great on land, is not great in terms of compactness, to get enough juice they had to give this thing a wingspan of over 200 feet. That's the bulk of an Airbus 380, but with the weight of a goddamn minivan.

2 TONS solar impulse 560 TONS aY aitbus 380 80 METERS
Solar Impulse / EPFL Claudio Leonardi

The Solar Impulse gets its own hangar to stop all the other planes from bullying it.

Right away you have to wonder if a simple updraft is going to be enough to send you into the mouth of oblivion, especially when you take into account that the thing apparently can't fly through clouds, which we're pretty sure is something that won't even pop a party balloon. Luckily, thanks to its cramped cockpit, you can at least rest assured that they'll be able to get to your stupid corpse if (God forbid) you fly through some frozen water vapor or just fucking flip over during your 30 mph takeoff. Yeah it has a 30 mph takeoff.

The Sun-Powered Plane That Set Solar Energy Back 50 Years
Abdelhak Senna / AFP / Getty

And yet it always flies in the left-hand lane.

Starting to see the problem? This is the poster child for solar power's merits -- a glider that effectively sets aviation technology decades into the past. In fact, it sets back travel in general, as demonstrated by its test flight from Madrid, Spain, to Rabat, Morocco, which took 20 hours. In case you're not an old hand at southwestern European travel, at a maximum speed of around 40 mph, that's double the time it would take in a car.

Thankfully they brought it to its San Francisco demonstration on another plane, otherwise we'd still be waiting for it.

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Solar Impulse

It'd be like if the Prius had to be towed around by a Hummer to make it on the interstate.

To give you some perspective here, the 747 that brought it from Switzerland probably took about 10 hours to do so, which is roughly the same amount of time it took the Solar Impulse to fly over San Francisco. That's right, they had to pack this plane into another plane with the same exact wingspan and fly it using jet fuel to a test flight where it went a fraction of that distance for the same amount of time ... to demonstrate solar-powered flight.

This is why you don't see nuclear-power enthusiasts taping uranium bars to sailboats and irradiating harbor seals at 4 mph -- just because you can do it doesn't mean it needs to be done. Solar is like any other source of energy in that it has its strengths and weaknesses. If you want to promote it, show it doing something it can do -- not something it can barely do. Ever watch that adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing with Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington? Same thing, fellas, same thing.

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