ROBOTS TO INSTALL AND CLEAN SOLAR PANELS PROMISE BREAKTHROUGH IN COST REDUCTION

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14 october 2013


A Staff of Robots

By DIANE CARDWELL, The New York Times, October 14, 2013

RICHMOND, Calif. — In a dusty yard under a blistering August sun, Rover was hard at work, lifting 45-pound solar panels off a stack and installing them, one by one, into a concrete track. A few yards away, Rover’s companion, Spot, moved along a row of panels, washing away months of grit, then squeegeeing them dry.

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.

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