Parity in pricing with fossil fuels, such as natural gas, has been the Holy Grail of solar. A New York Times feature entitled “A Staff of Robots,” explains how robots may help solar energy compete. In Richmond, Calif., a robot named Rover (really), owned by start-up Alion Energy, installs 45-pound solar panels in an assembly-line fashion along a track. Rover’s robot partner, Spot, cleans the panels by squirting water and squeegeeing them. Spot can be controlled with a smart phone.
Though solar panel prices have fallen by 70 percent since 2008, there are still labor and maintenance costs. Rover can help reduce installation time by as much as half. If the Richmond project succeeds, the company will move on to other California projects as well as projects in Saudi Arabia and China. Another start-up, QBotix, uses robots to control panel tracking so that they follow the sun, increasing their efficiency by 40 percent.