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The Sun In The Centre: Airplane Solar Impulse Makes History

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"This is a historic moment for the humankind," UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon said to the pioneer and pilot Bertrand Piccard during an Internet videoconference, few hours before the arrival of the airplane Solar Impulse in Abu Dhabi. "This landing is the start of what will come next" answered Piccard. On July 26 (at 00:05 UTC) this unique aircraft completed a 40,000 km, round-the-world journey propelled only by the energy of sun. The fuselage of Solar Impulse flies also the flag of the European Union and the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz promised to Piccard, in a videoconference on July 14, the commitment of the European Union to accelerate the energy transition.

Put the sun at the glowing heart of progress! This is the message of Solar Impulse. For two centuries technological civilization has revolved around the energy of fossil fuels, but now humankind has the capability and knowledge to make the energy of the sun the centre of its development. If by rightly putting the sun at the centre of the solar system the "Copernican revolution" corrected a factual knowledge mistake, the "solar revolution" in technology must now correct an error in moral choice. This error consists in continuing to burn coal, oil and gas in order to provide eighty per cent of the world energy, whilst accepting the increasing damage this causes to people and environment.

Of course, thanks to fossil sources of energy, last century saw an unprecedented boost of the world's population, the average longevity of humans, and the well-being of the richest bracket of them. Yet, now we know that fossil fuels have unacceptable environmental consequences, such as the disruption of the climate and increasing pollution, as well as dramatic social consequences, such as the bloody conflicts over fossil fuels, the impoverishment of entire populations and exponentially growing mass migration due to climate change.

This ecological and social harm makes the transition to a solar civilization an "energy imperative." This is the title of the last book by Herman Scheer (1944-2010), the pragmatic and visionary politician who perhaps did more than anybody else to implement the solar vision. When in the 80s he dedicated himself completely to the energy revolution, perhaps even Scheer did not dare to imagine the scene of July 26: a majestic electric butterfly with the same wingspan of a Jumbo jet and powered by two hundred square meters of photovoltaic panels, landing with a slight hum in Abu Dhabi, a few kilometres from the world headquarters of the International renewable energy agency (IRENA), the institution conceived and advocated by Scheer for decades, and finally established in 2009.

Through its outreach program futureisclean this solar airplane aims to support, especially in schools, hundreds of initiatives which aim to educate people in saving energy and a transition to renewable energies. Kofi Annan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Achim Steiner (UNEP), Sir Richard Branson are among the prestigious initiators of this educational program, which testifies that the true mission of Solar Impulse is the communication of a message, rather than the development of a technology.

Indeed, the technologies making this plane fly have been known for years and the novelty is "only" in having them assembled together, for doing something that was deemed impossible just a short while ago. This is a good approximate metaphor of our world, where we aren't certainly lacking technologies for the energy transition, but we rather lack political initiative and coordination, we lack real willingness to subordinate the vested interests to the common good, and we especially lack the individual and collective awareness for doing it. In order to arouse the latter in the whole population, symbols and images are more effective than graphs and statistics. To touch the hearts and minds, it is better to tell a story than to display calculations.

Some images become simultaneously icons and driving force of an era. For example, since the 70s the photograph of our Earth seen from the Moon, a small and pale blue marble floating in the dark, became the icon of a new awareness of its fragility. In order to truly discover the Earth, man needed that moon-landing? What are the value and the price of symbols? How much did the Eiffel Tower cost per meter? The cost and result of Solar Impulse would be "three thousand bucks wasted per kilometre" somebody said. But perhaps he did not grasp that dollars come and go, but there are some dreams coming true -- and staying with us.

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