Can Solar Robots Cut The Cost Of Renewable Energy


Shared on September 04, 2012 written by Todd Woddy via Forbes

In a corner of a Silicon Valley neighborhood of modest tract homes, robots are quietly at work generating electricity.

Behind a high fence a robot glides on a monorail around 20 solar panel arrays attached to steel poles, like WALL-E on a Disneyland ride. (See video below.) The robot, made by Menlo Park, Calif., startup QBotix, stops at each array and an arm pops out and mechanically adjusts the angle of the photovoltaic panels to track the sun through the day and the seasons to maximize electricity production.

Such dual-axis systems can boost a solar power plant's electricity production by as much as 45% but they are expensive as each individual array must contain a motor and other mechanical parts. By eliminating individual trackers and letting one battery-powered robot do the job for 200 panel arrays, QBotix claims it can cut costs by 15% while increasing electricity generation by 15%. That would let a solar developer install Qbotix's dual-tracking robotic system for the same cost as a simpler single-axis tracking system that produces less electricity.

"Much of the cost of a solar plant is the steel used in the system," says Wasiq Bokhari, QBotix's chief executive as he shows me around the 24-kilowatt installation in Menlo Park days before the startup emerged from stealth mode. "The robots allow us to take out 50% of steel utilization in the system."

Solar panels typically account for only about the third of the cost of a single-axis power plant, thanks to a plunge in photovoltaic module prices in recent years. Thus there's a renewed focus on cutting so-called balance of system costs everything from permitting to installation and maintenance to make solar competitive with fossil fuel power.

"The robot itself is only a few cents a watt," notes Bokhari, a boyish 42-year-old serial entrepreneur who holds a PhD in physics from MIT.

QBotix is selling its systems in 300-kilowatt units that include a robot, a back-up robot, steel track and tracking stands for the solar panels. The lithium ion-powered 'bots are GPS-enabled and communicate wirelessly, gathering data on the operations of a solar power plant. The company declined to reveal pricing for the system.

Each robot can adjust 200 solar panel arrays in 40 minutes and consumes about 30 cents of electricity a day, according to Bokhari.

The robots also promise to extend the reach of small-scale renewable energy production called distributed generation as the QBotix system does not require land to be level or graded. And developers don't have to dig trenches to bury a power plant's wiring as it runs in a conduit alongside the QBotix monorail.

"We can install on lands where traditional tracking systems cannot be installed," says Bokhari, who recruited solar experts and roboticists from Stanford, Caltech and MIT. "You could install on the side of a hill and the tracks can follow the contour of the hill."

QBotix has signed up customers but Bokhari declined to indentify them until the startup's first deal is announced in October.

The company has raised $7.5 million in funding, including $6.5 million from high-profile venture capital firms NEA and Firelake Capital. Other investors include Siemens Venture Capital and DFJ JAIC.

That's enough to begin commercial production, says Bokhari. The robots currently are being assembled at QBotix headquarters in a non-descript building in a light industrial area of Menlo Park.

"The days where you had to put hundreds of millions of dollars into a solar company to make it swing positive, those days are over," says Bokhari.

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Citation: Todd Woddy. Can Solar Robots Cut The Cost Of Renewable Energy. In via Forbes. Retrieved September 04, 2012, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/toddwoody/2012/09/04/can-solar-robots-cut-the-cost-of-renewable-energy/.

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