The story of how oil companies in the Middle East refused to support Solar Impulse 2 (SI2) fearing a fall in their shares, unfolded at an interaction between the pilots of the world’s first solar-powered aircraft and students and faculty of the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A), organised by French Champagne group MoëtHennessy, which is backing the project in a big way.
As many as eighty companies have partnered with the SI2 on its record-making round-the-world flight, currently on an extended pit stop at Ahmedabad. The flight, which was to take off Sunday has now rescheduled to Tuesday morning given the sudden turnaround in the weather across Gujarat, which has been seeing rains since Thursday.
The SI2 that took off from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the oil rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) which is hosting the pioneering effort, got no oil companies on board as sponsors as these companies thought their association with the project will spread panic in the world regarding the scarcity of this valuable non-renewable natural resource.
Bertrand Piccard, one of the founders and pilots of the SI2 said, “When we talked to oil companies, they were interested and went very far in the process of making partnership. But at the end they decided to stay away saying that if they advertised for solar power, it will give the message of panic to the world. People will think there is scarcity of oil and their shares will go down. They said we love your project but we won’t come”.
The aircraft with a 72- metre wing span fitted with 17,248 solar cells to power the plane’s four engines, has made a halt in Ahmedabad’s Sardar Patel International Airport and will fly next to Varanasi on a 33,000-km world tour on the morning of March 17. Its planned flight delayed slightly because of weather vagaries. While the express message behind the project is to propagate the message of sustainability, pilots Piccard and Andre Borschberg said they were not “fighting against anybody,” hinting at oil companies, but were simply encouraging people to diversify their products and technologies.
“We still need oil but we also need other sources of energy. In some countries oil will be extremely convenient, in other countries we don’t have oil and it is much cheaper to rely on wind power, solar power, bio-gas, etc. Saudi Arabia which produces 12 billion barrels of oil per day is launching one of the most ambitious solar programmes to use solar power in order to increase their oil export,” Piccard said. The pilots were speaking to an audience of around a dozen students and faculty members of IIM-A Saturday.
The pilots said that the companies that decided to associate with them turned out to be those that were outside the world of aviation or energy – sectors one would think will most likely associate with a project like this. “The partners who came to support the project are never the ones whom we thought would come. We thought they’d be those from aviation, from energy. But they said this project was impossible. The companies supporting us are those from outside the world of aviation and they are driven by spirit,” Borschberg said.
Bruno Yvon, Managing Director, MoëtHennessy India which is associated with SI2 and organised the interaction, said the company decided to associate itself with the project because it is promoting sustainability.
“We are here to help Solar Impulse send across the message of sustainability. We are a large grape grower. For us sustainability is very important. So the association with plane which is promoting clean energy is very natural. We grow grapes through sustainable agriculture, energy conservation, water treatment, the supply chain is green, green design with products, our understanding with partners,” Yvon said.
Piccard and Borschberg said that they still needed the support of oil companies to support sustainable project like theirs because they have money, resources and power to steer the change.
“But if they resist the change, somebody else will use it. They will lose the market. Each time we are in a period of change, we have to embrace the change. And I hope lots of companies will understand that and will be successful to future. But if they don’t understand, they will say this bloody solar power killed us. But no, they will have been killed by their own stupidity,” Piccard said.