How drones are helping design the solar power plants of the future

A cottage industry is growing around new technology for solar power developers to design, build and operate solar farms to help compete with fossil fuel power

At the edge of a plot of muddy farmland, a few miles down the road from the University of California at Davis, an technologist takes a few quick steps across crop rows and lets go of a three-foot drone. Within seconds, the device which weighs less than 2lbs and carries a powerful camera ascends hundreds of feet into the cold, clear, blue sky and have started to snap detailed photos of the ground far below, including a long row of large solar panels mounted on steel poles.

This flight is just a test, suggested by Kingsley Chen, the drone fleet coordinator for SunPower at the solar company research and developing center, which is under construction and about a two-hour drive northeast of the San Francisco Bay Area. The droning will enable SunPower to survey a wide region and assistance design a solar power farm that they are able fit more solar panel on a piece of land, more quickly and for lower costs than it previously could.

The test highlightings a growing employ of the latest computing technologies drones, robots, software, sensors and networks by US companies to design, build and operate solar farms . After seeing the prices of solar panels fell dramatically over the past decade, companies are looking for new ways to cut costs and compete with fossil fuel power through project design.

Cutting down the amount of land used by solar farms has additional benefits, particularly in places like California. It minimizes environmental effects, an issue that can be controversial for big projects built for utilities because they tend to spread across hundreds of acres of land in remote regions. Some of these projects have riled environmentalists, attracted lawsuits and forced solar companies, including SunPower, to commit money for land for wildlife conservation.

Solar companies and service providers are utilizing many different types of technology to optimize both the deployment of solar and the operations and maintenance of solar, tells Justin Baca, the vice president of markets and research for the solar group Solar Energy Industry Association. He adds: Its all about cutting costs.

An increase in tech investment could help to boost growth as more big solar and gust farms come online in the US and worldwide over the next few decades. The US Energy Information Administration predicts that more solar power plants will be built and provide 1.4% of the countrys energy by 2018, up from less than 1% in 2016. While solar attains up a tiny section, its among the fastest-growing sources of new electricity generation capacity in the country.

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Marc Grossman, principal design technologist at SunPower, at his work station at the companys R& D center in Davis, California. Photo: Robert Durrell for the Guardian

Solar Tetris

Its like a big Tetris puzzle, says Matt Campbell, vice president of power plant products at SunPower, as he and his team show off the companys solar farm design software.

On a screen is a detailed image of land that one of SunPowers 10 survey dronings has collected from the sky. Overlaid on the photos are Tetris-looking colored blocks that represent solar panel and inverters, which convert the direct current produced by the panels into electricity for the grid. A SunPower engineer can use the software to fit as many of the blocks as is practicable while laying out the configuration of a power plant.

The company designed its algorithms to take into account hundreds of factors that a human technologist might overlook, such as where transmission lines will be or how much tint will be created by the panels as they follow the sunshine throughout the day.

A decade ago, a survey of a project site would require dispatching a crew to gather information such as the steepness of a slope and the vegetation of the region, explains SunPowers CEO and chairperson Tom Werner. In contrast, utilizing the software and dronings enables technologists to design research projects 90% faster, he adds.

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A solar power plant owner would dispatch this type of drone to take infrared images of solar panels to ensure they are working properly. Photo: Robert Durrell for the Guardian

SunPower, a solar panel manufacturer and solar farm developer in the US, is making most of the technology it use for project design. Meanwhile, a cottage industry is growing around creating technology for other solar power developers to design, build and operate solar farms.

One of these is HST Solar, a four-and-a-half-year-old startup in Los Angeles that, like SunPower, has developed algorithm to swiftly plot out the best designs, layout and wiring for big solar farms. Use HST Solars artificial intelligence software, launched last year, companies can lower the costs of producing solar energy by 30%, tells Santanov Chaudhuri, co-founder of the company.

So far, Chaudhuri says that customers have used the companys software to design about 4 gigawatts of solar projects, which is about the amount of solar panel projects that are installed across the US in a single quarter.

It isnt only the sprawling solar farms that are benefiting from software and design tools. An Oakland, California, startup called PVComplete constructs software for designing solar panel projects on rooftops. The software enables any technologist to design a system use a range of solar equipment, while also considered by different local requirements, such as climate, for installing them.

Claudia Eyzaquirre, who has worked in the renewable energy business for a decade, co-founded PVComplete in 2015 after noticing that all of the major solar companies were expending big money to build their own design software. But few alternatives were available to smaller solar companies that didnt have the money to do the same.

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SunPower use robots to clean solar panel in order to cut water use and lower the labor expense. Photo: Robert Durrell for the Guardian

Solar companies are also turning to the latest in calculating technology to operate and maintain solar farms , not just design them. In 2013, SunPower bought a startup called Greenbotics, which developed a robot that lowers the cost of cleaning solar panels while use less water than human washers can do. The Greenbotics squad now works on engineering projects at SunPower and manages SunPowers fleet of 40 solar-panel cleaning robots.

Solar developer Strata Solar employs dronings with infrared cameras to survey the more than 1 gigawatt of solar projects after theyre operating. The images from the cameras can uncover any solar panels that arent rendering electricity.

Its a great way to check on the overall health of the organizations of the system, says Gabe Cantor, Strata Solars director of design engineering. You can spot problems down to the cell level.

Drones who needs them?

While dronings are playing an increasing role in the solar industry, many companies arent convinced that they are cost effective , notes a report by The Electric Power Research Institute, which conducts research for the power industry.

The technology being used by some in the solar industry isnt as sexy as dronings, tells Jenny Chase, head of the solar research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. A plenty of it is bearing tech like software.

First Solar, one of the largest power plant developers in the country, has experimented with drones for designing power plants and thermal imaging of operating solar farms. But it isnt rolling them out for company-wide employ right now.

First Solars director of business development, Jeremy Rand, tells dronings and robots arent sophisticated enough or affordable: A plenty of these technologies are in the experimentation stage and not quite there yet.

The falling prices for solar panels also make it difficult to justify an investment in emerging and more expensive technology, Rand adds. Both First Solar, and fellow manufacturer SunPower, watched their stock prices fall last year and now plan to cut thousands of jobs.

With the solar module cost breakdown, its a tough time to be truly inventive, Rand says.

But overall, the solar industry is investing in better technology because it has a long way to go to replace fossil fuels. The US solar energy industry is also facing an elimination of the tax subsidies that have historically been important for growth. At the same hour, President Trump hasnt made it clear on his policy for solar energy.

Technologies like( ours) can ultimately make solar independent without taxation credits, and without subsidies, and much sooner than people guess, HST Solars Chaudhuri says.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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