There’s Still Hope in Solar

Solar might not be the most up-and-coming, high-growth sector today. However, there’s still hope for growth and innovation. Now that prices of solar panels have plummeted – panels are 70 percent less than prices in 2008 – solar companies are looking to cut costs in non-module areas such as labor and EPC (engineering, procurement, and construction). Traditionally, solar modules cost more than a half of the total system cost, but with the lower module prices today, the portions of labor and EPC costs have risen as a percentage of the total costs. To further cut costs and remain competitive in the solar market, some start-ups are casting spotlights on robots to make installation faster, easier, and cheaper.

One of the companies in this area is Alion Energy based in Richmond, CA. So far, it has produced two robotic vehicles: Rover for installation and Spot for cleaning solar panels. By automating the installation process, Rover replaces labor for rack assembly and panel placement. This could reduce construction time by five months in some cases. With shorter construction time, developers could also cut interest payments on loans. Totaling all of these benefits would result in tremendous cost reduction, especially since labor and EPC occupy a significant portion of the total system costs today.

Alion’s Spot is an automated cleaning robot that could be programmed to clean solar panels daily, weekly, or at any interval. This is especially useful in high soiling areas such as deserts and agricultural areas where dust could pile up on solar panels and reduce the energy output by double-digit percentage. It also comes with an additional perk of cutting vegetation that can cast shadows on solar panels.

Another way to cut costs is to use a tracking system. QBotix, a start-up based in Menlo Park, CA, has developed a robot that controls panels to tilt at an angle optimizing sun exposure and the energy output of the panels. According to the CEO, Wasiq Bokhari, the tracking system could get as much 40 percent more electricity from each panel than in a fixed-tilt system.

Both Alion Energy and QBotix are getting attention from investors. Alion Energy and QBotix have raised a total of $60 million and $12.5 million respectively. Despite the dramatic slowdown in the solar industry in the past four years, these relatively new technologies seem to be gaining commercial attraction. As CEO of Alion Energy, Mark Kingsley, says in his NYT interview, “when you really do disruptive change of cost, you change materials and you change design concept.”  If these technologies can prove to bring disruptive changes to solar installation, we should expect to see many more innovations coming out from solar.