The Quest To Automating Solar Panel Maintenance

SolarCleano’s B1A model is its largest fully automated PV cleaning robot (Photo © SolarCleano).

With solar energy playing a big role in the green transition, the business of maintaining solar panels has seen unprecedented growth. Automation, with the help of robots, has been one of the biggest accelerators for this slice of the energy sector, and AI appears to be the next one.

Government subsidies for photovoltaics have put the focus on residential solar panel installations, but the truth is that those are much more intensively used by energy companies and businesses. Having an impact on the energy transition requires a scaled-up project. 

And the more panels there are, the more time and effort it takes for them to be cleaned. This is where companies like Luxembourg-based SolarCleano come in and have excelled in a market that was valued at $559.9m in 2021 and is expected to grow to $1.3bn by 2030, according to Global Research Hub. They are in the business of automating this process by selling and leasing solar panel cleaning robots.

The reason solar panels need this service is that they perform worse when their surface is sullied. The value of cleaning a couple of solar panels is insignificant for a residential installation. You can gain 5% or 2% improvement after a wipe-down, and that’s nothing to one household, but on the scale of 100,000 panels, it is completely different.

Adapting to specific challenges

The bigger an energy site is, the more it requires a fully autonomous robot to do the job. On the other hand, if cleaning is needed once a year, a semi-autonomous solution makes more sense. What stands out in the solar panel business is how much operations are affected by the weather and geographical specificities.

“If you’re in a place like Saudi Arabia, where every single day at 4 p.m., you have a sandstorm, and every single day at 4 p.m., you lose 30%, It makes sense to have a fully autonomous robots on site. If you look at Europe, rain doesn’t do the job, but rain can help. In this part of the world as well as in the USA, usually people will maintain the solar panels once a year.”

Romain Gourmet, head of global sales at SolarCleano.

There is a significant water footprint associated with solar panel maintenance. Manual cleaning usually requires six litres per hour, according to Gourmet, while Solarcleano’s robots can use as little as half a litre per hour. Of course, the client can tweak the water consumption, and many would use at least one litre to ensure stellar quality, but this still points to automation as a way to reduce how much water is being used. 

In some countries, like Senegal, even half a litre per hour is too much. Dry-cleaning robots are preferred in this situation, but those are not very suitable for projects in Europe and Luxembourg due to high levels of humidity and the likelihood of bird droppings.

In Luxembourg, one of the biggest users of solar panels are farmers. About 95% of them have such an installation, estimates Gourmet. Those running an agriculture business often have big buildings with a large roof. Also, many farmers pool their resources together, buy one robot, and use it among themselves, remarks Solarcleano’s head of global sales.

“There is a specific challenge in every single country. In places like Canada, we face big challenges with snow. In Europe, we have a lot of cement-related challenges. And in Luxembourg, with ArcelorMittal’s floating solar farm, maintaining a floating solar farm is not as easy as a mounted system. We need to adapt ourselves every single day.”

Romain Gourmet, head of global sales at SolarCleano.

The future of the solar panel cleaning business seems to be more and more about automation, and AI will play a big role in that. Like other firms, Solarcleano uses this tool to detect microcracks in the installations. But one of the biggest challenges is making it all work in remote areas, like the Arabian desert, where no internet connection is available. 

In the future, the owner of the solar panel installation should have detailed information about what the robot has done, how much that has improved the efficiency of the panels, and what the optimal frequency for cleaning is. As technology improves, so will the prospects of this part of the energy sector, which appears to be here to stay, especially with AI helping it reach another level.

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