This Autonomous Robot Uses Solar Power To Clean Solar Panels
An autonomous robot from Enel Green Power addresses the challenges associated with keeping solar panels clean.
Solar power is growing, but as it does, practical issues surrounding it are becoming increasingly clear. Keeping panel surfaces clean is one problem many may only consider once they must deal with it. A new autonomous, water-free robot promises to resolve that challenge.
SandStorm water-free autonomous robot. Image used courtesy of Enel Green Power
Renewable energy company Enel Green Power (EGP) has unveiled SandStorm – a solar-powered robot that autonomously cleans solar panels. The bot has already received contracts from two photovoltaic (PV) energy plants and could signify a shift in renewable power if it proves effective.
The Issue of Solar Panel Cleaning
Solar panel cleaning may seem fairly minor, but it’s crucial to maintaining efficiency. Dust accumulation on solar panels decreases PV energy production by 7% in the U.S. and as much as 50% in the Middle East, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
Many solar farms are also in particularly dusty areas, exacerbating this concern. Deserts make ideal locations because of the extreme amounts of sunlight they receive, but they also carry higher contamination risks. Solar farms near factories or highways also get dirty faster because of more airborne pollutants.
Cleaning solar panels to maintain efficiency is often challenging. Many brush materials can scratch PV cell glass, limiting their ability to generate power. Too much water pressure can also damage panels, and gentler water-based cleaning is wasteful, offsetting solar’s environmental benefits.
Cleaning solar panels with water. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock
Manual cleaning processes also take much time, leading to high labor costs. NREL estimates that a one-time cleaning can cost up to $5,000 for a 10-megawatt solar farm.
How SandStorm Helps
SandStorm offers a solution to this complex problem by providing a gentle, water-free, autonomous solar cleaning system. The robot travels across panels without human input, adjusting its course to account for uneven angles caused by moving panels. Once done cleaning, SandStorm returns to its docking station to recharge using the solar panels it just washed.
The robot also uses specialized, gentle brushes to remove dust without scratching solar cells. These brushes also allow SandStorm to avoid using water, which is important considering solar panel cleaning consumes 10 billion gallons of water annually.
Because SandStorm uses solar power instead of relying on grid-derived electricity, it can also reduce costs. Solar farms won’t have to pay for increased energy consumption or the human labor needed to keep panels clean. Using solar power also removes greenhouse gas emissions from the cleaning process.
Solar farms can maximize these benefits by using SandStorm at night. That way, the robot won’t shade any solar cells — which can cause damaging electrical imbalances — and won’t interfere with peak production hours.
Other Robotic Solar Panel Cleaning Systems
These advantages are impressive, but it will take additional solutions to keep up with solar demand. Almost 50 countries have pledged to use 100% renewable energy by 2050, so SandStorm alone can’t support every solar installation. Thankfully, other companies have come out with similar solutions.
Israeli startup Airtouch recently released an autonomous cleaning robot that can cover 2,000 meters on one charge. Instead of water, the bot uses microfiber wipes and redirects air to clean panels. The Airtouch robot can work independently but also offers remote monitoring and control features.
EGP has also announced a collaborative robot that can take SandStorm between rows of panels. Transferring a single SandStorm bot between multiple rows lets solar farms clean more panels with fewer machines, lowering operating costs.
Remaining Obstacles and the Path Forward
Despite this potential, some obstacles remain in large-scale cleaning robot adoption. Chief among these are the high upfront costs of any robotics application, which are more impactful in renewable energy, as renewables already involve higher initial expenses.
Tax breaks and similar incentive programs can help offset these costs, making cleaning robots more accessible. Solar farms must also recognize that automation will lower their expenses over time, similar to how renewables are the most affordable energy type despite their high initial prices.
Consumer solar panels present another issue, as homeowners with rooftop solar panels may be unable to afford an industrial-grade robot. Solutions include manufacturers making smaller, cheaper consumer bots or leasing them for individual uses.
Autonomous Cleaning Could Drive Solar PV Growth
Cleaning robots could boost the entire solar industry as this technology advances and more solar farms embrace it. Their efficiency would make solar energy more reliable, cost-effective, and easier to manage. Those improvements, in turn, will encourage larger-scale solar PV adoption.
The effects of SandStorm and similar systems on the broader solar industry are still uncertain, but the future seems promising. Technological advances addressing practical issues break down the barriers to renewable energy adoption. Robots could play a key role in the fight against climate change.