Robotic Cleaning Systems for Photovoltaics Is the First Step to a New Balance-of-Systems Package

Utility-scale solar systems are increasingly becoming competitive with conventional energy sources as tariffs continue to drop, largely as a result of sinking module costs. Under these market conditions, the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative – a support organization for the commercialization of solar technologies – announced it has reached its 2020 goal of an average cost for utility-scale systems at $0.06/kWh three years early. As such, SunShot has promised $62 million to support concentrated solar power systems and $20 million for supporting power electronics. The SunShot Initiative’s goal is to improve grid reliability and resilience as photovoltaic systems continue to become interconnected, but there is still significant understanding needed to improve the lifetime reliability of photovoltaic systems themselves.

Multiple initiatives are underway to classify climate-related degradation in order to improve lifetime performance, but there are also ways to mitigate certain factors that lead power loss. Soiling is a major issue in desert regions, where dust and sand storms can lead to significant build-up of debris on the front surface of a panel, potentially reducing total power output by up to 80%, in contradiction to the attractive element of high insolation in these regions. To address this, multiple companies are developing water-free robotic cleaning systems, reducing operation and maintenance compared to manual cleaning.

Ecoppia is an early mover in the space, having now reached over 300 MW of deployments in India and the Middle East. While not comparable to Ecoppia in terms of development status, multiple other companies have emerged pursuing waterless robotic cleaning – a key need in order to address dry, desert regions where water availability is low and transport costs are high. Lux Research is also aware of Ecovacs Robotics, Miraikikai, and NOMADD all pursuing their own technologies, while SunPower has its own product through its acquisition of Greenbotics. Patent activity in the space is on an upward trend, suggesting continuing competition in the field. Winners in the space will need to focus on compatibility with trackers, increasingly growing in share, while looking ahead to other trends.

As photovoltaic systems continue to evolve through a focus on lifetime reliability and durability, multiple components will converge. Robotic cleaning solutions will become less of an add-on, and part of an integrated solution that includes trackers to improve performance, monitoring for equipment failure, and machine learning for adaptive operations and predictive maintenance. Inverter company ABB has stated a focus on enabling the digitalization of power plants. Robotic cleaning companies will offer only one component – readers should consider how they can leverage data, pilot projects, and existing power electronics to improve lifetime performance of solar systems.

By: Tyler Ogden

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