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Can robots push down the price of solar electricity?

Posting in Energy

Utility-scale solar farms often stretch across hundreds of acres. They're massive projects that rely on crews of workers to install, and later keep clean, row after row of panels.

One California-based startup is betting its robots—dubbed Rover and Spot—can speed up the installation and maintenance of large-scale solar farms enough to bring the price of solar electricity in line with natural gas.

Alion Energy's two machines—Rover takes care of installation and Spot cleans the panels—will be used in three projects in the next few months in California, China and Saudia Arabia, the New York Times reported.

Alion Energy says Rover and Spot, which were unveiled in June 2013, can build utility-scale plants two times faster than conventional installation with 50 percent less labor required.

Alion Energy uses extruded concrete rails to replace metal posts, racks and cable trenches. Rover works with the concrete rail system to carry and mount panels, an installation process that eliminates low-skilled tasks such as bolt-tightening, ditch-digging and hauling heavy glass over uneven ground, the company says.

Alion Energy, along with several other companies, are finally tackling an area within large-scale solar projects that has so-far received little attention: installation and maintenance. While module and solar cell prices have dropped, labor, engineering and permitting has risen.

QBotix has developed a robot that controls tracking operations to maximize output from solar panels, while Serbot makes robots that can clean solar arrays, the NYT reported.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has developed its own solution for concentrating solar power plants by combining GPS, an infrared camera and some fancy software, and then loading it all onto the back of a pickup truck. The so-called Thermal Scout can identify and analyze bad receiver tubes, which typically number in the thousands, as fast as a truck can drive between the rows of mirrors at a CSP plant.

Photo: Alion Energy

— By on October 15, 2013, 8:32 AM PST

Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure