Using robotics to lower solar installation costs

With solar panel prices having come down so much over the past few years, many are pondering whether reduced panel pricing will really contribute that much more to grid parity. Rather, dealing with soft costs, ranging from marketing to installation is becoming the name of the game. Rooftop solar player SolarCity has done two acquisitions this year, one geared at improving its marketing reach, the other at cutting its install times from 2-3 days to just one day.

Enter on the utility scale solar side startup Alion Energy, which is deploying robots to aid in panel installation and maintenance. From today’s New York Times:

 

Spot can be controlled with a smartphone and runs on a solar-powered battery. It rolls along the rails beneath the panels, squirting water and passing over them with a spinning brush and a squeegee. It also has a standard hedge trimmer attachment that can cut vegetation from the ground.

The promise of automation is not only to reduce the cost of labor, but also to cut construction time — to 12 weeks from six to eight months in some cases — which also reduces the amount of time developers would be accumulating interest on a loan, said Mark Kingsley the chief executive at Alion.

Estimates indicate that the technology should cut installation costs by around 50 percent. The final quote of the article is telling:

“The goal is not robotics,” but to beat the price of natural gas, Mr. Kingsley said, as the machines continued moving inexorably along the south-facing rows, with the panels Spot cleaned suddenly producing about 12.5 percent more electricity. “You have to be lean and pretty low cost to meet that.”

It’s good to see this kind of thinking from Mark Kingsley, Alion’s CEO. Kingsley came out of Trina Solar and ABB, and should know as well as anybody that the name of the game is fighting the coming wave of cheap natural gas.