Interview with pioneer Bertrand Piccard


Bertrand Piccard is an explorer, a visionary and somebody who wants to improve life on earth. When he started 15 years ago to put his idea of circling the globe in a solar-powered plane into practice, many people said he was mad. That was the greatest incentive for him. Pioneers are people who know: the impossible is often possible after all.

Bertrand Piccard has flown around the world with his partner André Borschberg for 15 months – without a single drop of kerosene, just on solar energy. A sensation. The two of them have held steadfastly to their dream for a full 15 years and overcome a lot of resistance. They had to deal with some setbacks too. For example, the 72-metre long wings were constructed by a ship builder after a plane manufacturer indicated that it was not possible. But they never doubted their plan or gave up. INSIDEista met Bertrand Piccard at the congress of the French social housing company, Union Sociale Habitate (USH), in Nantes and was able to talk to him about his dream.

Herr Piccard, together with André Borschberg you worked on and polished your project for flying around the world in a solar-powered plane, Solar Impulse, for 15 years. Now be honest: how many people said you were mad in that time?

A lot of people. Particularly aviation industry specialists. Experts are often particularly good in their specialist areas and frequently only reproduce what they have learned. That way they forget to think outside the box. They often lack innovative spirit and creativity. For this project you need unconventional thinkers. People who believe in what they are doing. And we found them – outside the aviation industry. In the end, over 150 people worked on the project – engineers, technicians, mission controllers, cooks, planners, communications experts, film specialists, logistics people and many, many more.

„2001: A Space Odyssey“ or Jules Vernes’ „Around the World in 80 Days“: What inspired you to come up with this idea?

Well for one thing, a tradition of scientific exploration runs in my family: my grandfather Auguste Piccard was the first man in the stratosphere and my father Jacques Piccard was an oceanographer and touched the deepest point in the oceans. Through them, when I was young, I already met many explorers and astronauts who inspired me. During the American Space Program, I lived in the USA and spoke to great minds like Wernher von Braun and Charles Lindbergh. They showed me how much life can give when you explore it and are not afraid to take risks. At the age of 12, I already knew: that’s the life I want to lead.

„My grandfather Auguste Piccard was the first man in the stratosphere and my father Jacques Piccard was an oceanographer and touched the deepest point in the oceans.“

Now you have made the impossible possible and flown around the world with clean energy. Which people congratulated you whom you wouldn’t have expected to?

The CEO of a large company – which I don’t want to name here. He didn’t want to go into partnership with us because he didn’t believe in us and our plan. I met him recently and he told me what an idiot he had been not to have joined us back then. People who didn’t believe in us had to admit afterwards that they were wrong. Those are moments which underline the success of our project even more.

After crossing the Atlantic, the proud pilots land in Seville. The 16th of 18 legs is completed.

Going round the world took more than 15 months, André Borschberg and you took turns to fly the plane, swapping after each leg. What does one think of when one is alone in the cockpit?

When I was sitting alone in the cockpit, I felt as if I was in a science fiction film. The plane is absolutely unique. There is no other one of its kind in the whole world. And it flies for ever without fuel – if that isn’t science fiction, I don’t know what is. Only it’s science fiction in the present – not in the future. I gazed into the sun, looked at my four silvery propellers and thought to myself ‚This is simply fantastic‘.

Is there any moment which has particularly stuck in your mind?

There were many brilliant moments but one special moment was when I was able to speak live to Ban Ki-moon. He was at the UN Headquarters in New York with 175 heads of state who signed the Paris Agreement. And I could talk to him live from the Solar Impulse cockpit. That was the moment when I realised: wow, Solar Impulse is now really reaching the goal I set when initiating this project. And not just as an adventure or attempt to break a record but as something with far-reaching significance for global energy savings.

The media’s reaction to your success was huge. What do you think will be the long-term effect? For example as regards international air travel?

My aim is to promote these clean technologies to be used on the ground and in daily life. Aviation only accounts for 5 per cent of global CO2 emissions – that’s not much. It’s the 95 per cent on the ground which really have an impact. It’s these we have to reduce – emissions from traffic, housing construction and industrial processes. Half of today’s CO2 emissions result from inefficient systems. When we say that it isn’t possible to reduce CO2 emissions, it is simply not true. Actually we only have to replace the old systems with modern, clean technologies: with heat insulation, LED lighting, heat meters for individual consumption such as ista does, smart power grids and heat pumps.

„Half of today’s CO2 emissions result from inefficient systems. When we say that it isn’t possible to reduce CO2 emissions, it is simply not true.“

Can we as individuals have any effect at all by climate-friendly behaviour? After all, globally speaking, energy consumption is tending to increase rather than decrease.

It has to be more than behaviour. That alone is not enough. Everybody can do everything but we need clean technologies for it. The Solar Impulse engines are 97 per cent energy-efficient. To give you a comparison: a car engine is 27 per cent energy-efficient. So you can see exactly where we have to start. Electric and hybrid cars should be the future. Houses should no longer be heated by gas. The only thing is it has to be profitable for the end consumer. And that is it: I have insulated the roof of my house and installed a heat pump. And by doing this, I managed to cut my annual heating costs by a third.

You want to set up the World Alliance for Clean Technologies – who is it to be made up of and what is the exact goal?

Anybody who has anything to do with clean energies can become a member. The Solar Impulse Foundation with its sponsors will offer this organisation all its services. If you are active in this area – like ista for example – you can be part of this alliance. Membership is free. The aim is to offer a platform for communication and exchange of ideas internally among the members and externally with the media and government. In this way, I want to support associations, start-ups and companies.

Where do you get all your own personal energy from?

From my passion to explore and discover the world. But also to explore ways to find balance and peace within myself. If you only live in your mind, you tire very quickly. When you are conscious of yourself in your body, you have a lot of energy. I have learned this through hypnosis techniques and many books. My mother also explained many things to me. She was very interested in oriental spirituality and taught me a lot.

At the congress of Union Sociale Habitate (USH), the French social housing company, Bertrand Piccard signed his latest book at ista’s stand and took time for an interview with INSIDEista.

Just one or two words more about ista?

I like ista’s approach because it is exactly what I want to teach and pass on. ista reduces energy consumption with modern technologies so that it is profitable and at the same time improves the quality of people’s lives. If we can cut the energy consumption of a household by consumption-dependent billing, that’s a win-win situation. The same goes for LED lighting, heating systems, heat insulation and electric mobility.

Picture credits: grasundsterne, ista, Solar Impulse