Harnessing solar power for a better tomorrow

27 June 2022

Raphaël Domjan is a Swiss explorer and lecturer. He has been involved in many world firsts in the field of solar travel, including the first round-the-world trip using solar energy on the catamaran PlanetSolar, the first solar navigation of the Arctic Ocean, the first jump from an electric plane, and the first solar freefall. As a strong proponent of the use of solar energy in the fight against climate change, his adventures now focus on protecting the environment and biodiversity.

We spoke to him about his motivations, passions, and future plans. 

Raphaël, why are you so passionate about sustainable energy projects?

It goes back to 1993. I was on an expedition in Iceland, and there was a huge glacier. But when I went back 11 years later to exactly the same place, all I could see was a lake – there was no longer a glacier. It made me realise how quickly glaciers are disappearing and the world is warming, and that was a big shock for me. I could see with my own eyes how climate change is really happening, and that we have to make big changes to how we live. From that time, sustainable energy has been a very important part of my life.

How did your love of flying develop?

It’s always been a part of me. I remember dreaming about flying when I was a very young child. When I was at school, playing with my friends, I’d pretend I was flying. When I was 15 years old, I started to fly in a glider, and I’m still passionate about it to this day – every time I’m flying, for me it's a wonderful moment.

What do your PlanetSolar and SolarStratos missions do?

The aim is to promote solar energy and to achieve feats that nobody has even tried before, and, as such, to lead by example. PlanetSolar was the first boat to go all the way around the world powered only by solar energy. And SolarStratos aims to be the first aircraft to reach the stratosphere powered solely by the sun. I think doing such things for the first time is a great way to raise awareness of renewable energy. It also helps create a legacy that you can use in your communications to promote solar energy and educate people about how solar power can be the energy of the future.

Do you think the solar energy represents the future of aviation?

No, I don't think so. Solar energy may have a part to play in sustainable aviation in terms of charging a plane on the ground and then using hydrogen to power the aircraft in flight, so that it’s only using renewable energies. But I think it’s actually electric aircraft that represent the future of aviation. Five years ago, it was impossible to fly in an electric aircraft, but now there is already one type of electric aircraft (the Velis aircraft) that is available to buy. Today, it's even possible to learn to fly in an electric aircraft. I think that, very soon, it will be possible to fly for up to two hours in an electric aircraft, making it a good option for things like flying for pleasure and skydiving in the next five years.

What are the biggest challenges that renewable technologies are facing within aviation?

Safety is a big issue. When you want to change something, you have to go through the certification process and make sure you’re in line with all the regulations, and that’s a really big hurdle. And from a technological standpoint, the density and safety of the battery are challenges we need to overcome.

How can people support solar aviation?

I don't know if we need to support solar aviation itself. I think we need to support new types of aircraft that use more renewable energy and make less noise.

As someone who’s been involved in many pioneering sustainable energy projects, which ones stand out for you?

For me, the stand-out project was the first crossing of the English Channel by a solar aircraft without a battery, by the team of Paul MacCready. It took place all the way back in 1981 – over 40 years ago – and flew 262km from France to England. This was, for me, a really huge project in the history of solar aviation. And from a personal perspective, I’m most proud of PlanetSolar, in which we made the first circumnavigation of the globe in a solar-powered boat. Succeeding was an amazing feeling.

Why was PlanetSolar so ground-breaking?

PlanetSolar was really a big step for the field of solar mobility because we achieved a number of firsts: it was the first solar-powered round-the-world voyage and we were the first to cross the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea using only solar energy. PlanetSolar is also the largest solar boat in the world and is the solar vehicle to have travelled the furthest distance at over 60,000km.

It’s also been instrumental in helping us inspire others to take up the cause. Just yesterday I was talking to the owner of a big shipyard in Barcelona that only makes solar boats. He started his business after he saw PlanetSolar. He thought to himself “okay, if they can go around the world in a solar boat, we can use solar boats for a four-day trip”. So, I think PlanetSolar was a big step forward for solar travel in general.

What message would you send to young people about choosing sustainable forms of travel?

Through PlanetSolar and SolarStratos, we’re trying to send an optimistic message to members of the younger generation who are worried about the future of the planet, and what the future holds for them. In the world of tomorrow, I believe we will continue to do what we’re doing today – things like skydiving, travelling, and driving a car. But we will do them much better than today – without the carbon emissions and without the noise. But we have to act now and make big changes to make the world a much better place tomorrow than it is today. That doesn't mean we have to stop doing everything that we enjoy, though. I’m very optimistic that if we all come together, these changes are possible and that there will be big benefits both for people and for the planet.

Photo credit: Copyright © 2021 Fred Merz / Lundi13 / SolarStratos

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