On Thursday, May 12th at 3 am PST, the Solar Impulse plane leaves Phoenix, Arizona on the 11th leg of its journey, bound for Tulsa, Oklahoma. Solar Impulse is attempting to fly around the world, powered only by solar energy. It’s now completed over two-third of the epic journey. As well as breaking records for solar flight, this odyssey shines a spotlight on the many business opportunities that clean technologies offer.
“I never have enough of flying that plane…when you see those four electrical motors that put the plane in the sky with no noise, no pollution, it’s like a jump into the future. The world cannot continue on combustion engines, badly insulated houses, incandescent light bulbs, outdated systems to distribute the energy…this is last Century. You don’t have to be ecological anymore, just logical!” Bertrand Piccard
Piccard is Co-Pilot, Explorer and Solar Impulse Chairman. He’s also a psychiatrist, and a United Nations Environmental Program Goodwill Ambassador.
“We had to build an aircraft that was extremely energy efficient. It’s all about energy efficiency. This efficiency is extremely important on the ground as well. If we would use the technologies now on board this airplane, we could reduce our energy consumptions by at least 50%.” Andre Borschberg
Andre Borchberg is Co-Pilot, MIT Engineer and Solar Impulse CEO
Here’s a transcript of the discussion (edited for length and clarity):
BBC Host, Fergus Nicoll: After an unexpected nine-month delay, a solar-powered aircraft aiming to complete a round-the-world voyage is back in business. Check out their website … it’s got a snappy update for you on the front page – “We are in Phoenix!” Alison has prepared a report for us – talking to the two pilots who’ve been steering this epic journey so far. – so Alison before we play in the piece, set the ground for us – where did you meet the team – what have they achieved so far – and why the big delay?
Alison van Diggelen: It’s a very interesting story, especially if you cover clean tech. Last Monday, I got up at 3 am to watch the Solar Impulse take off from Moffett Field here in SV, bound for Phoenix AZ. I talked with the two pilots who take turns on each flight. They’re attempting to fly around the world, powered entirely by solar energy. They left Abu Dhabi in March 2015, and are two-thirds of their way around.
Bertrand Piccard, one of the pilots told me: you don’t change the world with just an idealistic approach, you change the world if you have practical & profitable solutions. So they’re really pushing this clean energy, energy consumption message. They say we could reduce our energy consumption here by over 50% if we used the clean energy and energy efficiency techniques on that airplane. One of biggest potential business opportunities is solar powered airplanes replacing satellites in the sky…
BBC Report: Solar Impulse Plane Brings Clean Tech Message Around World
Alison van Diggelen: The propellers are starting very slowly, but they’re about to take off…you can hear the propellers….It’s in the air…
Elke Neumann: It’s in the air. Woo hooo hooo!
Alison van Diggelen:All we can see is a line of lights in the sky and it looks like it’s barely moving, just floating there, about 1000 feet off the runway.
Last week, the Solar Impulse plane took off from Moffett Field in SV. Its mission is to fly around the world, powered only by solar energy. It’s now completed about 2/3rds of that journey, flying from Abu Dhabi across Asia to Hawaii last year. The team plans to reach NY by June and cross the Atlantic this summer.
The plane has the weight of a family car, but the wingspan of a 747, covered with 17,000 solar panels. I talked with Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss explorer and one of the two pilots who’s taking turns in the cockpit.
Bertrand Piccard: I never have enough of flying that plane…when you see those 4 electrical motors that put the plane in the sky with no noise, no pollution, it’s like a jump into the future. Thanks to new technologies, the future is already today.
Alison van Diggelen:What for you is the biggest game changer?
Bertrand Piccard: The world cannot continue on combustion engines, badly insulated houses, incandescent light bulbs, outdated systems to distribute the energy…this is last Century. It’s not only about protecting the environment, it’s a lot about making money, new industrial markets, economic development, profit, job creation. These clean techs can be used for electrical mobility, LED lights, smartgrids. It’s a complete demonstration of everything we need in our society…. Maybe Solar Impulse is a way to try to overcome the resistance of the dinosaurs who have not yet understood where the future is.
Bertrand Piccard:What do you say to these naysayers?
Bertrand Piccard: I tell them: be really careful because innovation does not come from inside the system. It’s not the people selling the candles who invented the lightbulb. What you’re doing now will be replaced. If you want to innovate be a pioneer… change your way of thinking. Dinosaurs disappear, they were the strongest one, but the less flexible one to adaptation.
Alison van Diggelen: Andre Borschberg, piloted the Japan to Hawaii flight, an epic 5 day, 5 night journey. He explains that Solar Impulse is like a “laboratory in the sky” and is excited about its multiple tech spinoffs.
Paige Kassalen is part of the Solar Impulse ground crew and works for Covestro, one of the clean tech companies developing lightweight, high efficiency solutions for the “flying laboratory.”
Borschberg: What we have today is an airplane which can fly day and night, a week, a month, non stop …It’s totally sustainable in terms of energy, the limiting factor is the pilot… If we make it unmanned, an airplane can fly in stratosphere (above the bad weather) for 6 months, potentially replacing what satellites are doing, but cheaper in a flexible way…no pollution of space.
Alison van Diggelen: What made the journey even possible?
Andre Borschberg: We had to build an aircraft that was extremely energy efficient. This efficiency is extremely important on the ground as well. If we would use the technologies now on board this airplane, we could reduce our energy use by at least 50%. As it continues on its journey, the Solar Impulse team is striving to change the world, not just of aviation but of energy and communications too. You could call it a Kitty Hawk moment for the 21st Century.
Fergus Nicoll: I want to pick up on one or two of these ideas, the spinoff tech…start off with this amazing idea: the solar drones, solar powered unmanned vehicles in the stratosphere, a kind of neo-satellite…
Alison van Diggelen: That’s right. It was amazing to re-think satellites. Satellites cost up to $100M to produce, and then to launch them, it’s another $50M. So if you could do the same with a solar powered airplane, then there are huge cost savings available. Not only cost, but flexibility. These satellites go up for 7, maybe 15 years maximum, but two years into their journeys, the technology is old, whereas these solar powered airplanes could come down after six months and get repaired if necessary and get the latest technology fitted to them. So there’s all sorts of applications like GPS navigation, communications…observations: deforestation, climate change monitoring. They’ll probably have to make these solar airplanes even bigger to carry the massive payload.
Fergus Nicoll: Are other companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere watching this…to see what they can spinoff themselves?
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, in fact the solar panels – the 17,000 panels – on the planes wings are made by a Silicon Valley company, and I know of at least one other Silicon Valley solar company that would rather be on the wings. So I think this whole project is a catalyst for companies to say: hey, we want to be the No. 1, the most lightweight, the most efficient solar panel. The “flying laboratory” is stimulating other companies because it’s shining a spotlight on these clean technologies.
It’s no secret that cleantech has taken a bashing in the last few years, yet Andrew Chung, a partner at Khosla Ventures is still bullish about the sector’s prospects and convinced that it makes sense long-term, both domestically and globally. During our recent hour-long conversation, he admits that “keeping the cleantech fire burning” is the first thing he thinks about when he wakes in the morning.
“The number one thing is to ensure the cleantech industry continues to survive and thrive,” says Chung. He cites several companies in his portfolio that recently raised large rounds at strong valuations.
Keeping the fire burning? It’s curious imagery for someone focused on clean energy; and technologies that lower our carbon footprint. I imagine him cheerfully stoking a bonfire, plumes of black smoke filling the air.
“Would you like to qualify that?” I ask.
He chuckles, “Yes…we would capture the carbon created by the fire and transform it into something else.”
It’s a fitting segue into one of his favorite investments: LanzaTech, a company that happens to do just that. It takes carbon capture one step further, capturing waste gases like carbon monoxide from heavily polluting steel plants and converting them into “valuable fuel and chemicals.”
He calls it one of his Black Swans – highly improbable investments, that are not incremental improvements on business as usual, but giant technological leaps.
So compelling that the company recently announced a joint venture with Baosteel, a major steelmaker in China, which is investing in a new commercial facility due to come online in 2015. LanzaTech’s zero capital contribution to the deal means it can continue to scale up and pursue other partnerships in Japan, Europe, India and Russia.
I was curious to learn who helped with the initial discussions to broker the deal? None other than former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Those paying close attention to Khosla Ventures will remember he joined the team as a strategic advisor in 2010.
So what makes it such a compelling deal? Chung calls it a confluence of events. The blanket of smoke over Shanghai being a palpable one, leading to pressure from the Chinese government on major polluters like steel makers to clean up their act. There’s also the global ambition of many Chinese businesses who view such partnerships as strategic moves.
Societal tensions add to the pressure to solve China’s huge environmental problem. Even Jack Ma, China’s Andrew Carnegie is focusing his new philanthropic trust on health and the environment.
You’ll notice that the United States is conspicuously absent from LanzaTech’s partnership list. That fact is also at the top of Chung’s mind. Several of the potentially transformative technology companies he backs are finding it easier to get global partners than American ones.
“How do we communicate this message to D.C.?” says Chung. “If technology is not supported here, it will leave our shores.”
Chung feels the regulatory environment means that American companies are more complacent and have less appetite to take risks. He cites the U.S. car industry where employees get bonuses whether or not they achieve product improvements.
“It needs a regulatory push to compel them to take greater risk,” says Chung. “We don’t have the dire need like in China where (almost) 1 million people are dying of pollution every year.”
KINDRED SPIRITS OF ELON MUSK
Talking of risk taking, Chung sees himself and his boss Vinod Khosla as kindred spirits of Elon Musk, who staked all his PayPal wealth on transforming the electric car sector with Tesla Motors.
“It’s a major cleantech success story,” says Chung. “Elon deserves a lot of credit…he stepped on the gas when others were giving up.”
What makes them kindred spirits? It’s more than just their strong belief in technology explains Chung. He quotes Irish playwright and cofounder of the London School of Economics, George Bernard Shaw:
“All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
“So are you and Vinod Khosla unreasonable?” I ask.
Chung laughs. “We are contrarians!” he says. “We’re willing to do what it takes.”
He points to Khosla’s investment in Ecomotors, an internal combustion engine targetting energy efficiency gains of up to 50%. The company also has backing from Bill Gates and entered into two joint venture partnerships to build plants in China, deals involving hundreds of millions of dollars. He anticipates 200,000 engines for cars and diesel generators will roll off the production lines by the end of 2016.
“We’re addressing the transport problem from both angles,” says Chung. “We are focused on the electric revolution…battery technology investments. EcoMotors is a hedge to reflect the 99% (of the transport sector) that’s not yet electricity…electric vehicle infrastructure is still a challenge.”
SINGING FOR THE WORLD
We finally touch on what Chung calls his “secret identity,” his singing career. A finalist in Hong Kong’s version of American Idol, Chung says he has no regrets about choosing business over a singing career. Although he enjoys “bringing joy” to an audience, he’s very aware that it’s fleeting. Such momentary joy pales in comparison to his goal of having a major societal impact, or as he puts it, “Enabling 5 billion people to live like 1 billion do now.”
Chung plans to continue singing the praises of disruptive cleantech innovation. He’s firmly committed to keeping that cleantech fire burning.
One day after Steven Chu defends his department’s handling of the DoE loan guarantee to Solyndra, we look at the impact of Solyndra on the venture capital industry. In this exclusive interview, Andrew Chung, the newest member of the Khosla Ventures investment team, shares his views on the Post Solyndra era. Will the failure of Solyndra have a significant impact on cleantech investment? How does Chung respond to critics who say that cleantech investment is a disaster?
“Downstream, there are other investors who are a bit more skittish about investing in following rounds…”
“In the past twelve months, we have three companies that have gone public and generated over $1.1B in profits for the firm. ..It’s possible to make money in cleantech and drive a lot of change and drive significant returns.”
“It’s still relatively early…we are in the second inning of an extra inning game, in the development of this industry.”
“(At Khosla Ventures) we continue to be incredibly excited about the cleantech opportunity…we just raised a $1.1B fund, half of it is going to be in cleantech.”
Check back soon for more highlights from our interview with Chung:
On America’s comparative advantage vis a vis China
On what we can learn from China’s cleantech policies
“This is our generation’s Sputnik Moment,” said President Obama in his State of the Union Speech last night. He’s referring of course to the space race with the Soviet Union, which spurred massive investment in research and development… and massive job creation. Today, he challenges the nation to invest massively in the future again, especially clean energy and green tech. It’s the only way we can catch up with (or surpass) China in the clean energy race.
Is China the invincible leader of clean energy and clean tech? It certainly looks that way. In a Fresh Dialogues interview, New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman explained his China envy… and emphasized that government has a huge role in jumpstarting the green economy. Would he like to be Obama’s Green Czar? Not a chance. He explains why in the video below.
What can we learn from China’s remarkable lead in clean energy? I talked with China expert, Isabel Hilton, founder and editor of China Dialogue who has earned a OBE for her groundbreaking work in this field. Her team’s mission: to give the reader an inside look at China’s environmental policy and encourage dialogue between China and the rest of the world. (Check out the site…it’s in Chinese and English)
“If you think you can ignore China, you don’t know what’s coming down the road,” warns Hilton. She describes the strategic economic shift in China over the last four years, from dirty unsustainable development to a new cleaner, greener outlook. In 2011, a new five year plan will be released to position China for the future. Hilton is impressed by the focus and conviction of China’s new policies which invest heavily in research and development; and support for new cleantech industries; strategies Obama says are necessary here in the US.
Hilton cautions that public opinion is a stumbling block to progress in the West and that the “Merchants of Doubt”community is undermining policy change by generating and sustaining doubt on established scientific issues. She challenges Obama to act decisively. So far, she says, “Obama has failed to live up to his convictions.” Time will tell if Obama’s forceful State of the Union speech last night – with its “The Future is ours to win” optimism – and the bipartisan mood of Congress will create real change.
The Economist newspaper has a reputation for world-class reporting, with a sardonic British twist. Is the publication bullish about green innovation? I sat down with Martin Giles, the Economist’s US Technology Correspondent last week to get his global perspective on green innovation and the greening of Silicon Valley tech companies. Giles conducts interviews for the delicious Tea with the Economist series and other high profile conferences, but when the tables were turned, he didn’t disappoint. In this Fresh Dialogues interview, we talk GREEN, from data centers to smart grid; and green jobs to political bluster.
Is GREEN and sustainability important to tech companies today?
“It’s definitely on everybody’s agenda. It’s an opportunity to save money. If we can find ways of powering our server farms…our production lines more efficiently, we can save money and do a favor to the environment. That’s a win-win.”
What lasting green trends are happening today?
“E-waste is a big issue…How do we create products that don’t leave a massive footprint on the environment?”
“Smart grid… It’s classic Silicon Valley – it’s technology on the one hand and power on the other…let’s bring them together and create a whole new paradigm.”