Exclusive interview with Bertrand Piccard, Founder and President of the Solar Impulse Foundation
Bertrand Piccard talks about his interest in adventure, the Solar Impulse project and about his initiatives to protect the environment.
Bertrand Piccard is a pilot, adventurer, environmentalist, psychiatrist and scientist. He achieved the first round-the-world flight without fossil fuel in 2016 via his project, Solar Impulse. From the 1st to the 21st March 1999, Bertrand had achieved the first round-the-world balloon flight. With the Solar Impulse Foundation, he has recently launched the challenge of selecting 1000 solutions that protect the environment in a cost-effective way. This will then be presented to decision-makers around the world to encourage them to adopt more ambitious environmental goals.
You were crowned European paragliding champion in hang-gliding in 1985. Have you always been fond of thrills? Where does this interest in adventure come from?
My grandfather held an Explorers Club card, and so did my father, so why shouldn’t I too? I decided to become an explorer in July 1969. I can remember the moment exactly. I was 12 years old. My father had just gone on board the Mesoscaph Ben Franklin, which he had built to study the Gulf Stream. He was about to drift for a month along the East Coast of the USA, a voyage of 3,000 km. A few days later, awestruck, I was present at the launch of Apollo 11 – destination the Moon. The most spectacular event in the history of humanity!
How did you come up with the idea to start the Solar Impulse project? What were your goals when leading this mission?
My vision of achieving a perpetual flight with zero fuel was a result of the round-the-world balloon flight that I accomplished in 1999 with Brian Jones. At the time, we left with 3.7 tonnes / ~8.200 lbs. of propane and finished with just 40 kg / ~88 lbs. left upon arrival. When I realized that our attempt could have failed for lack of fuel, I promised Myself to fly around the world again, but next time without using any fossil fuels. Following a feasibility study carried out by the EPFL (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne) and led by André Borschberg, the Solar Impulse project was officially launched in 2003. The aim of the project was to develop a symbol which would attractively promote a pioneering and innovative spirit, particularly in the field of renewable energy and clean technologies.
You had to face many challenges during this round-the-world flight aboard a plane powered exclusively by solar energy. How did you prepare for it, both physically and mentally?
Solar impulse is approaching perpetual flight and therefore, theoretically, could fly forever. One of the main challenges is the human factor i.e. pilot’s sustainability. No sleep is permitted whilst the plane is flying over populated areas, but over the oceans and unpopulated areas, sleep is planned and integrated in the form of short naps of up to 20 minutes at a rate of one to 12 times a day. The pilots have also developed techniques to relax the body while remaining awake – Bertrand Piccard uses techniques of self-hypnosis and André Borschberg yoga techniques.
Bertrand: “I got trained at hypnosis and self-hypnosis in 1992 in anticipation of the first transatlantic balloon race that would consist of five days and five nights over the Atlantic in a tiny capsule. I use all these techniques when flying with Solar Impulse. The first trainings took place in a simulator with vigilance tests showing a total stability of my performance and my concentration. Hypnosis is based on techniques of dissociation: part of yourself gets autonomous and allows you to observe the other part of yourself while living an experience. In the case of resting periods, the method is to dissociate the head from the body. The body can regenerate into a very deep relaxation while keeping the brain alert enough to check the instruments and follow what happens during the flight.”
With the Solar Impulse Foundation, you recently launched the challenge of #1000solutions through the creation of the “Solar Impulse Efficient Solution” label. Can you tell us more about this project: how was it born? What are the objectives?
Thousands of solutions exist that can boost economic growth while preserving nature, but they are often hidden in startups or research labs. They remain unknown to decision makers and are not implemented at industry level. So few people realize that everyone can use them and how profitable they have become. I have therefore set myself a new challenge: select 1000 clean, efficient and profitable solutions, and present them to decision makers in businesses and governments around the world to accelerate the transition to a carbon-free and sustainable economy.
I started by launching the World Alliance for Efficient Solutions which brings together the main actors in the field of clean technologies in order to share knowledge, create synergies and build relationships that will ultimately speed-up the implementation of clean and profitable solutions. Members of the World Alliance are divided into three main categories: innovators, those developing solutions; investors, who are looking into opportunities for investing; and seekers, who are looking for products, technologies or services that can help them transition toward sustainability. We already have over 1000 members and I encourage everyone committed to fight climate change through clean technologies to join us.
This new project carries a strong message: green solutions can also be cost-saving. Do you think that highlighting the profitability of these solutions can convince governments and companies?
Each time I speak of protecting the environment to heads of state or government officials, they tell me that it is too expensive. This label is a strong message to them: solutions exist, and represent the biggest market opportunity of our century. An opportunity which cannot be missed.