Whether or not you’re following the world’s first solar-powered airplane trip around the world, you would likely agree that it’s impressive for two guys to circumnavigate the globe in what amounts to a flying phone booth without a drop of fuel. Solar Impulse (the name of the plane) landed in Mountain View last week amid very little fanfare. After it flies over the US and the Atlantic Ocean, the voyage should be completed this year. Piccard and Borschberg (the pilots) would have finished already if not for bad weather in Asia and damaged batteries in Hawaii, which took months to repair.
The plane has four lithium batteries, about one-fourth of the experimental aircraft’s total weight. The batteries provide power through the night and begin charging again with sunshine.
4 batteries. My boom box took 8. As devices get smaller and more personalized, most of us stopped carrying boom boxes around as the ’90s began and breakdancing dwindled. But they were a big deal.
We prefer not to have to rely on batteries. The lights in our home run on electrical switches connected to the local utility. But most of us own at least one flashlight…just in case. And for camping. When we’re forced to rely on battery power, we get preoccupied with it. What happens when the smartphone gets down to 10%? We get nervous and don’t like the idea of not having enough power.
Yet there is enough power. We’ve been getting it from under the ground in the form of coal and petroleum, but it turns out the sun is a powerful, clean, consistent, inexhaustible source of electricity that doesn’t have to be mined.
Storing energy in batteries is an amazing thing, but it’s not the best or most viable option, just like you probably won’t get your next flight to Hawaii aboard Solar Impulse.
With cars, every engine comes standard with a part called an alternator: It keeps the car battery charged. Dead batteries are not a common phenomenon as a result.
A common misconception with solar power is that every house is like a big Solar Impulse plane without wings. It’s a neat science fair project, but not necessarily how I want to run my household.
Solar power runs with the utilities, not instead of them. While it is possible to install a battery pack to store the sun’s energy for use at night and live completely independent of the local utility, most of us in urban and suburban homes don’t find such a system practical. It’s a bit like going around with a flashlight because we don’t want to use switches and bulbs.
For now, batteries are not the best option, Tesla being a prime example: “I’ve got this awesome car! Bummer it can’t make it to Vegas on a single charge.” As smart people continue to look at ways to make battery power more potent, affordable, and mobile, we’ll stay tuned in.