Solar Impulse: a flying microgrid ?

Solar Impulse is helping to draw attention to this shift in the energy mix, in which ABB has a major role to play.

For those who would like to see renewable energy provide the world’s electricity needs, Solar Impulse has been a huge inspiration. The project’s engineers have managed to do what many, the airline industry included, considered impossible: fly a plane day and night using only solar energy. They have been the first to harness an intermittent source, the sun’s rays, and keep an electric plane in the air throughout the hours of darkness, by reaching new peaks of energy efficiency and building an effective battery storage system.

In the air, this is a one-off prototype and a high-risk endeavor. If there is any miscalculation by the pilot or support team, the plane could run out of energy during a multi-day ocean crossing. If it does so, there’s no plan B. The pilot would have to bail out, and the mission would be over.

But on the ground it’s becoming more and more commonplace to imagine running our cities and industries on renewables. Solar Impulse is helping to draw attention to this shift in the energy mix, in which ABB has a major role to play. Across the world, microgrids running on ABB technology are allowing off-grid communities, such as islands, to reduce their dependance on imported fossil fuels. Hawaii, the Winter home of Solar Impulse, is one such place. A 6 hour flight from the mainland, Hawaii has suffered high energy prices, the grid running almost entirely on imported diesel. Today, the picture is very different. Motivated by economics, rather than environmentalism, Hawaii’s governor has signed an ambitious target into law: to take the state 100% renewable by 2045. That process has already begun, and residents who have installed solar panels, encouraged by generous subsidies, have seen their fuel bills plummet. One of the islands, Kauai, is almost half way to the 100% target already, thanks to two solar farms, a hydroelectric plant and a biomass facility. The picture below shows the Anahola solar array on Kauai. The Battery Energy Storage Systems uses ABB Power Conditioning Systems to make sure the power provided by the photovoltaic cells is stabilised. Brad Rockwell, Power Supply Manager, Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative has likened the technology to “the brains behind the operation”.



ABB and Solar Impulse both believe that it is possible to run the world without consuming the Earth, using energy efficient and clean technology that is already on the market.

As Solar Impulse continues on its mission to be the first solar-powered plane to fly around the world, we will bring you many more stories showing how ABB is doing on the ground what Solar Impulse is achieving in the air.

Follow us on for the latest news and information on our technology alliance with Solar Impulse.

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About the author

Conor Lennon

Formerly a broadcaster and communications consultant, I am currently based in Zurich as Global Special Projects Manager for ABB. I like to write about issues surrounding technology, sustainable development and society.
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