A Staff of Robots Can Clean and Install Solar Panels

November 1, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

But despite the heat and monotony — an alternative-energy version of lather-rinse-repeat — neither Rover nor Spot broke a sweat or uttered a complaint. They could have kept at it all day.

That is because they are robots, surprisingly low-tech machines that a start-up company called Alion Energy is betting can automate the installation and maintenance of large-scale solar farms.

Working in near secrecy until recently, the company, based in Richmond, Calif., is ready to use its machines in three projects in the next few months in California, Saudi Arabia and China. If all goes well, executives expect that they can help bring the price of solar electricity into line with that of natural gas by cutting the cost of building and maintaining large solar installations.

In recent years, the solar industry has wrung enormous costs from developing farms, largely through reducing the price of solar panels more than 70 percent since 2008. But with prices about as low as manufacturers say they can go, the industry is turning its attention to finding savings in other areas.

“We’ve been in this mode for the past decade in the industry of really just focusing on module costs because they used to be such a big portion of system costs,” said Arno Harris, chief executive of Recurrent Energy, a solar farm developer, and chairman of the board of the Solar Energy Industries Association. Now, Mr. Harris said, “Eliminating the physical plant costs is a major area of focus through eliminating materials and eliminating labor.”

Modules dropped to 35 percent of system costs in 2013, down from 53 percent in 2010, while labor, engineering and permitting rose to 15 percent from 9 percent in the same time period, according to Greentech Media, which tracks the industry.

For all that the industry promotes its innovations, the business of mounting panels on the ground has remained largely the same for years, a process adapted from smaller rooftop arrays that use metal racks to hold the panels in position. In an expensive, time-consuming process that can demand hundreds of hands and millions of screws, workers clear and level the ground, drive in metal posts and attach and wire the heavy, glass-encased modules. Projects can frequently run into delays when, say, the wrong bolts show up at the site.

After the panels are installed, it can be expensive to keep them free of the dirt or growing vegetation that can block sunlight and reduce their output. That task often falls to crews of workers driving along the rows of panels, which can stretch for miles, to clean or trim around each one.

Several companies are developing or selling robots to aid in installation or cleaning, including the Swiss outfit Serbot, which makes robots that can wash the windows of glass skyscrapers as well as clean solar arrays.

Another start-up based in California, QBotix, has developed a robot that controls tracking operations, moving along an array and tilting the panels to follow the sun and maximize their output. Getting as much as 40 percent more electricity out of each panel than in a fixed-tilt system, said Wasiq Bokhari, the company’s chief executive, allows developers to build smaller, cheaper systems to meet their energy production targets.

“The solar market is very competitive, and people literally fight over single cents per watt, so by allowing such a dramatic decrease in overall power plant costs, we are bringing a lot of value to the market,” he said. The systems are now installed in five farms in the United States and Japan, with more scheduled to go in before the end of the year.

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