When I flew around the world non-stop in a hot air balloon with my friend Brian Jones, we took off with 3.7 tonnes of liquid propane. After 20 days, we landed with 40 kilos.
So when we say “the sky is the limit,” it’s wrong. It’s the fuel.
I wanted to change that paradigm and see what we could do with no fuel at all. That was the dream of the Solar Impulse project: to fly around the world on a solar-powered airplane that can fly almost perpetually.
The world of aviation told me it was impossible. So I had to turn to someone who did not know it was impossible, which was a shipyard. (Yes, the first airplane to fly around the world with no fuel was built by a shipyard.)
It’s a very important message: It proves that if you want innovation and a revolution in the way we think, you have to get out of the system. You have to find people who see our reality from a completely different angle. And then you need to understand that “the impossible” is only confined by the way we are thinking.
These are the types of things I was thinking when I was flying the Solar Impulse. When I was crossing the Atlantic from New York to Spain, that was three days and three nights in the cockpit. I knew that I didn’t really need to land. The only reason to land was when there was bad weather in front of you, or to give the cockpit to my friend, André Borschberg, because we promised that we would share this single-seat cockpit. Otherwise, with no reason to land, you could fly forever.
One day during that flight, I was looking at the sun and thought, “That’s my only source of energy.” I looked at my huge propellers turning next to me, and there was no noise. No pollution, no fuel. The plane runs by electrical engines and charges batteries during the day so you can fly at night. If you can fly at night on battery power and reach the next sunrise—if you can make that one cycle—then you can make as many cycles as you need.
In that moment, I was thinking, “I am in the future. This is science fiction.” But actually, it’s not. It’s the present. It’s what the technologies of today allow us to do—today. And when you understand that, you see that it’s the rest of the world that is in the past.
This is why each landing with Solar Impulse was a nightmare. I would land, open the door, and what would I see? Combustion engines. Badly insulated houses. Outdated lighting, cooling, and heating systems. Wasted energy everywhere because of inefficacy. Stupid grids instead of smart grids. This waste is causing most of the problems we have—of biodiversity, climate change, and depletion of resources.
Ecologists say that it’s our lifestyles that are destroying the planet. I believe the completely inefficient systems we still use are more to blame. We’re very proud to have the latest smartphone, but everything else we use is built off infrastructure that was invented in 1880 at the beginning of the oil era. It’s a shame.
So today the goal is not just to go into the future. The goal is to bring the world out of the past and into the present.
When the green activists want go back to less consumption, less mobility, and less growth, that will clearly create social chaos with millions of people unemployed. But on the other hand, the quantitative growth we have today is leading us to environmental chaos, which is not better.
So we’re stuck between two extremes. And very often people give up because they say they don’t have anything to do.
Well there is something to do: It’s qualitative growth. It means you create jobs, you make money, and you make a profit for everyone by replacing the outdated and polluting systems that destroy the planet with clean, modern, and efficient systems that protect the environment. Flying around the world was simply a way to demonstrate that you can do the so-called impossible with renewable energies and clean technologies. But it’s not enough, because people tell you that you’re only transporting one person at a very slow speed; it’s not practical for the world.
Of course it’s not practical today for the world! But remember that when the Wright Brothers flew in 1903, it also wasn’t practical for the world. But 66 years later, there were two people on the moon.
So you can see that you should never say that something is impossible. You should be inspired by all the solutions that can solve the problem. So let’s stop speaking about the problems. What are the solutions?
When I successfully landed the Solar Impulse in Abu Dhabi after circumnavigating the world, everyone said, “Okay, it’s the end of the adventure. The story is finished.” But the story starts where the adventure ends.
Because at this moment, the goal is no longer success. The success is just the step that allows you to go higher, to go further, to have more credibility, to have more visibility, to be able to inspire people, and to be able to change the world a little bit more.
So what did we do after this phase? We moved it into a very practical one. The Solar Impulse Foundation was launched, with the challenge to identify 1,000 solutions that can protect the environment in a profitable way. They could be technology products and devices, infrastructures, or systems. You have projects that save water and energy, devices that produce electricity with waste, and new industrial processes that use 99% less water. You have concepts for more natural agriculture, smart grids, and energy-efficiency hardware. It’s absolutely incredible what exists today.
Nearly 2,000 companies have joined up and are starting to pitch solutions. These solutions then get reviewed by different experts who assess their technical feasibility, because there is also some bullshit. We will only take what works—what works today. We then assess the solutions under the angle of how they protect the environment over their entire life cycle, and then we work out if they can be profitable.
It’s very important to speak the language of the people you want to convince. That’s the only way to influence the key decision makers. Because if you just talk about protecting the environment, a lot of people will tell you it’s expensive: “We don’t know how to do it, and we have huge investments to depreciate, so we cannot change anything.”
So is it possible for the company who produces that solution to make money? Is it possible for the consumer to also have a financial interest in the solution? For example, if you recover the hot water from a shower that is lost, to heat the hot water coming to the shower, you save half a dollar for each shower. If this system cost $300, it would quickly be profitable for a family or two or three people in just a few months.
We now have just passed 200 solutions that we’ve proven to be profitable. Our goal is to go to all the heads of states and leaders of big corporations, and show them what exists today. Because the big problem is that the legal framework is based on old assumptions. If we show what’s possible today, we can motivate the industry makers to enormously change the legal framework, and go in that direction.
So when you hear about huge problems we face today with environment, know that a lot of solutions exist. What we’re lacking today is not the technology: It is the ambition of the decision-makers to make it happen. We have people leading the world who are exactly the opposite of explorers: People who are lazy, who are selfish, and who have a short-term view. They have no idea of all the potential and the resources that mankind can find.
The goal is to change the world. And explorers can do it. We’re not exploring the South Pole or the North Pole, and we’re not exploring the Moon. We’re exploring solutions. We’re exploring the ingenuity, the smartness, the innovation, and the creativity of human kind. And together, we can get there.
This article was adapted from a speech Bertrand Piccard gave at the Global Exploration Summit in Lisbon, a gathering of The Explorer’s Club’s most intrepid members.