Solar Flight Around the World Reveals the Future of Energy

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In the last few years, solar energy has become a real force in the energy industry. According to GTM Research, 29 percent of new electricity capacity installed in 2013 was from solar, and in 2014 that figure grew to 32 percent. But thus far solar energy capture has mostly been restricted to solar panels on rooftops or in deserts in the southeastern U.S.

In the future, solar energy may infiltrate many of the products we use on an everyday basis. Everything from cars to smartphones to roadways could harness electrical energy from the sun. The best sign of the progress taking place in solar energy is currently over Asia, making its maiden flight around the world.

Solar Impulse Shows the Power of Solar Energy

On March 9 the Solar Impulse airplane took off from Abu Dhabi in an attempt to fly around the world over the next five months on solar power alone. The ultralight, 5,000-pound aircraft has a wingspan longer than a 747, is covered with high-efficiency SunPower (SPWR) solar cells and crawls at a fairly pedestrian 20 to 90 miles per hour. It won't be a quick flight, but it's an incredible milestone in the advancement of solar energy.

A five-month trip around the world may not seem impressive on the surface, but with two pilots and slow speeds, a continuous trip would be nearly impossible. But that doesn't mean Solar Impulse won't be flying 24/7 at times. The trip from Nanjing in the People's Republic of China to Hawaii is expected to take five days and five nights of continuous flight, an incredible feat of endurance.

The fact that an aircraft can fly 24/7 on solar energy alone shows how far the solar industry has come and just scratches the surface of its potential in the near future.

<b class="credit">Planet Solar</b>Planet Solar went around the world in 2012, and now the catamaran is a research vessel.
Planet SolarPlanet Solar went around the world in 2012, and now the catamaran is a research vessel.

Just the Beginning of Solar Innovation

The Solar Impulse mission only adds to the incredible feats being accomplished in solar energy. Planet Solar's solar-powered catamaran went around the world in 2012 and has now become a research vessel. When compared to flying an airplane or powering a boat on solar power, using solar in an automobile, a smartphone, or a laptop seems a simple prospect.

Mainstream companies are starting to realize the vast potential of solar energy. Ford's (F) C-Max Solar Energi concept car includes solar cells on the roof that can power the car for 21 miles every day in optimal conditions. The same energy production on a Tesla Motors (TSLA) Model S would power the car for about 2,048 miles per year, 12 percent of what the average person drives every year. Imagine how much potential there is in covering an electric vehicle with solar cells and simply leaving it outside. Free power!

NRG Energy's (NRG) recent acquisition, Goal Zero, aims to make portable solar energy easy to use. They have panels that easily strap to a backpack and charge portable power packs that can be used for most electronic devices.

Solar products are starting to become more available to regular consumers: I use a portable battery pack from IXYS Solar with a solar cell built into it. Before long, solar energy could be used to power the devices we use every day with very little disruption to our daily lives.

Solar May Someday Be Everywhere

The reason these innovations are exciting is because they're nearly invisible to the user. Adding solar cells to a car or a backpack, or even an airplane, doesn't impact the user experience -- and they could provide power by simply sitting out in the sun. What could be easier than that?

All it takes for solar energy to be added to consumer devices around the world is a cost-effective solar cell and a little engineering to include it in electronics products we use everyday. We know that solar is cost-effective, so it's a matter of time before it shows up in more and more products on store shelves. The potential is huge, and a solar-powered flight around the world is a sign of how far solar energy could take us.

Motley Fool contributor Travis Hoium owns shares of Ford and SunPower. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford, NRG Energy and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.