x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Robots help California’s solar industry boost productivity, cut costs

Some California solar plants are enlisting the help of robots to build utility-scale facilities twice as fast as conventional installation with 50 per cent less labour required.

Some California solar plants are enlisting the help of robots to boost productivity and reduce expenses.

A Richmond, California-based start-up, Alion Energy, has developed robots to automate the installation and maintenance of large-scale solar farms.

Meet Rover and Spot, a pair of patented robots that enable super speedy plant construction. Together, they build utility-scale facilities twice as fast as conventional installation with 50 per cent less labour required, according to Alion Energy.

Rover specialises in automated installation, carrying solar panels and installing them into concrete tracks. Simultaneously, Rover’s cleaning counterpart Spot, a robot that can be controlled with a smartphone and runs on a solar-powered battery, washes away grit with a spinning brush and squeegees the panels dry.

Human workers labour alongside the robots. After Rover glues solar panels in place, for example, human workers wire the panels into the system.

“Alion Energy has brought the speed, precision and efficiency of robotics to solar,” says Mark Kingsley, the chief executive of Alion Energy.

“Through using robotic installation and cleaning technologies, we’ve eliminated flaws that plague the installation process. Now, we can build plants that are not only the most cost-effective solution within the solar mix, but have a roadmap to deliver solar electricity at costs that can compete with any generation source,” Mr Kingsley adds.

The robotic dynamic duo eliminates low-skilled tasks, such as bolt-tightening, ditch-digging and hauling heavy glass over uneven ground.

This is paramount to the development of solar plants, especially considering mounting panels is a very costly and time-consuming process. These projects frequently run into delays and often require the help of hundreds of labourers.

In some cases, the robots are expected to trim the usual construction time for developing utility-scale solar plants from six to eight months down to just 12 weeks. Alion Energy estimates overall installation costs can be cut by up to 75 per cent.

Within the next few months, Alion Energy will roll out robots in three projects in California, Saudi Arabia and China. If operations unfold as planned, executives expect the robots will cut production costs, bringing the price of solar electricity as low as that of natural gas.

Another California start-up, QBotix, also specialises in creating robots for the solar industry.

The firm’s most recent innovation, SolBot R-225, positions solar panels and collects data for the robotic tracking system (RTS), which helps optimise productivity of solar power plants.

“By reducing the number of moving parts in the SolBot, we have been able to boost the performance of the SolBot by a number of measures, which in turn will improve the performance of solar power plants. This is really a situation where less is more,” says Wasiq Bokhari, the chief executive and founder of QBotix.

“Solar is one of the fastest growing segments of the energy industry in nearly every market in the world.

“We’re very proud to be able to help solar developers and power producers to lower the cost of solar energy,” Mr Bokhari says.

QBotix’s technologies have been deployed at five commercial-scale power plants in California, Arizona and Japan, with more locations expected before the end of the year.

In other news, the Silicon Valley solar giant SunPower recently acquired Greenbotics, a California company that makes a solar-cleaning robot called CleanFleet. These battery-powered robots are deployed at night and clean rows of photovoltaic panels, using less than a half cup of water for each panel – cutting consumption by 90 per cent.

SunPower anticipates these robots will be particularly useful in solar markets in the deserts of the Middle East and South America, where photovoltaic panels can be completely covered by sand in as few as 100 days.

These robotic innovations come at a time when interest in solar plants is heating up.

Government policies are increasingly supporting renewable energy production, and major corporations are taking an active role in investing.

Google, for example, has recently confirmed reports that it is investing $80 million to open six solar facilities. Five of these facilities, being built by San Francisco-based Recurrent Energy, will be in California and one will be in Arizona. The purchase is part of a $400m deal with the investment firm KKR.

The plants are expected to open by January, with a combined capacity of 106 megawatts, which is enough to power more than 17,000 homes in the United States.