"For this fragile Solar Impulse aircraft we need, let's say, perfection." Being an engineer myself, this statement by Wim De Troyer, chief meteorologist of Solar Impulse's around-the-world mission, caught my eye. How do you build perfection, especially if it's the very first airplane of its kind?
Mission engineer Yves Heller put it this way: "We stepped into a new field where we had no experience, and we built a large lightweight airplane everyone said would be impossible to build."
So how did they do it? According to the Solar Impulse team, there were two key ingredients. One was fresh perspectives. Yves Heller points out that "… many people who joined the project were new to the field. This was important because we knew that if you take the same standard approach as everyone else, you end up building the same airplane."
The other one was engineering skills – my trade. Subjecting new designs to rigorous testing up to the point where a very expensive prototype broke – the wing of Solar Impulse. The wings reminded me of the rotor blades on wind turbines, which supply clean energy for us around the globe.
The wings are made of similar material, they have to withstand heavy wind and they must last a long time in often severe conditions. Many windfarms today are located offshore, where they need to withstand gale force winds and the corrosive effects of seawater. The foundations are notoriously difficult to build, and if something breaks out there in bad weather, repair can be a serious challenge indeed.
Similar to Solar Impulse, the process of building wind farms involved many trials, errors and failures that I as an engineering underwriter followed around the world over the years. Of course, we always fed the experience we gained in the process back to the wind energy industry.
Sharing our insights and lessons learnt on the loss side, we initiated and contributed towards the development of an Offshore Code of Practice for the construction of wind energy farms. We drew it up in a collaborative effort with members of the offshore and insurance industry based on our combined risk expertise. The code helps developers avoid costly failures by enabling them to systematically identify and evaluate risks and relevant protection measures for each stage in the process.
This keeps windfarms insurable in the long-term. Without insurance, there would be no windfarms, which in turn would hamper our efforts to combat the effects of climate change by switching from fossil fuel to clean energy.
And this brings me back to Solar Impulse, which serves as a symbol confirming that we can indeed build our future on clean energy. To close with another quote from Yves Heller: "Adaptive and systematic out-of-the-box thinking is thoroughly inspiring for me. It's the very goal and reason why I'm here on the team."
The same holds true for us at Swiss Re Corporate Solutions. Putting our expertise to work to get innovative ideas off the ground is our daily job. We help to make things possible, and so have a lot in common with Solar Impulse.
Category: Sustainable energy: Solar, Wind