Solar Impulse CEO says this can make air transport cheaper, cleaner, quieter and safer

  • André Borschberg, chief executive and pilot at Solar Impulse said electric propulsion technology can change the aviation industry.
  • The technology will make air transport cheaper, quieter, safer and more environmentally friendly, he said.
  • The Chinese have made solar energy competitive, he added.

Electric propulsion technology can potentially make air transport cheaper, quieter, safer and more environmentally friendly, according to one of the co-founders of Solar Impulse, a company that is exploring the potential use solar-powered airplanes for travel.

André Borschberg, chief executive and pilot at the Switzerland-based company, spoke to CNBC on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum's annual June meeting in Dalian. He pointed to drones as an example of the potential the technology holds for the aviation industry. Consumer drones use electric motors to power the propellers that make them airborne.

"You can already see the small drones (are) more stable in turbulent air than very expensive helicopters," he said. "You can think about applying these technologies to airplanes as well."

"This technology, electric propulsion, will change the world of aviation," he said.

Borschberg, along with Solar Impulse chairman and pilot Bertrand Piccard, developed two solar-powered airplanes that are able to fly day and night without fuel. Last year, Solar Impulse 2 made a record-breaking round-the-world trip that set new levels for what clean technology can achieve.

Earlier this year, Borschberg co-founded H55 to further expand the potential of electric propulsion. The company is a spin-off of Solar Impulse and develops and sells electric propulsion technologies to aircraft manufacturers.

"I started a new company based on basically the technologies we developed, the know-how we have, (and) with the engineers that we have at Solar Impulse. The goal is to develop solutions for this electric propulsion world which is slowly emerging" he said.

H55 focuses on the entire propulsion chain, from the energy source and its management, to thrust and power. It also looks at pilot interface and all control systems. Its electric demonstrator aircraft has successfully flown more than 50 hours with a battery endurance exceeding more than one hour, the company said on its website.

Logan Cyrus | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Electric propulsion technology, according to Borschberg, can help address some of the common criticisms leveled at the aviation industry. "Aviation is seen to make too much noise, seen polluting, maybe sometimes (it is) expensive and through this technology, we can address these issues."

The global drive for developing more clean technologies took a slight dent earlier this year, when President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. The decision was criticized by many business leaders, while governors from several states said they will push to uphold the deal by forming what they called a "climate alliance."

When asked about the decision, Borschberg said it was not surprising. Instead, he said the counter reactions could see greater commitments from people toward the Paris climate deal objectives. "I'm sure Donald Trump will change his mind also in a few years, because he will see the potential we have of developing jobs through clean technologies," he said.

Borschberg explained that today, it is cheaper to produce electricity in places where it's sunny — such as Dubai, Texas and Arizona. Producing electricity using solar technology is less expensive than using gas, coal or any other types of fossil fuels, he said. This has led to a point of no return in the drive to pursue more clean energy.

Countries are taking advantage of this momentum, and China, for example, has been pushing for solar and wind energies.

"I'm also thankful for the Chinese to have invested so much efforts in the world of solar energy. The Germans developed the technology, but the Chinese made it very competitive. And that's the reason why we reached this point of no return because now they're very cheap," he said.