WASHINGTON – A California startup said it has found a way to leverage robotics technology to increase the efficiency of solar farms while lowering the cost of their operation.
QBotix (Menlo Park, Calif.) has rolled out a dual-axis solar tracking system that uses tracked robots in place of expensive motors and other equipment and materials to keep solar panels pointed directly at the sun. QBotix claims its automated approach costs as much as existing single-axis systems while generating as much as 15 percent more solar energy. The increase in energy output is said to be 40 percent greater than fixed solar panels.
QBotix said it is targeting its systems to solar installations generating in the range of 200 kilowatts to 5 megawatts. “That’s the sweet spot for the market right now,” a company spokesman said Monday (Sept. 3).
Solar tracking systems are designed to increase the efficiency of large solar installations by aiming modules toward the sun as it moves across the sky. Conventional tracking systems are large and expensive, in some cases requiring thousands of pounds of steel and concrete. Adding to the expense are multiple controllers and motors.
QBotix claimed its robotic dual-axis tracking system can replace costly motors and trackers along with a lot of concrete and steel.
The system uses a pair of autonomous robots, one primary and one as backup. The robots travel on tracks to adjust solar panels mounted on specially designed racks that do not have individual motors. The robots adjust each mounting system to optimize solar collection. QBotix claimed its system replaces hundreds of individual motors and controllers used on conventional systems.
The robotic system also illustrates how tech startups are zeroing in on reducing the cost of materials needed to broaden the deployment of solar farms and residential systems. For example, Twin Creeks Technologies (San Jose, Calif.) is promoting a wafer production machine that aims to significantly reduce silicon and other substrate material costs.
Siemens, an early investor in the QBotix, has already qualified the dual-axis tracking system, demonstrating the ability to track both flat-plate and concentrating solar panels. Siemens deployed its first grid-connected solar system in October 2011. Along with Siemens Venture Capital, other investors include New Enterprise Associates and Firelake Capital.
Qbotix said it expects the first commercial deployment of its dual-axis tracking system in December.
How about turning the 2 DOF system into nearly 1 DOF by tilting the panels north-south with a spring steel or fiberglass cam from the east-west motion. You flex the cam a little as the season changes. Maybe a tweak every 10 or 20 days done during the human maintenance cleaning & inspection rounds. Get rid of those expensive robots and hire some unemployed kid.
I'm sure I don't quite get this, but even assuming nothing would fail, it seems like the robot(s) could never get caught up on a large multi-panel array. By the time they adjusted the last panel it would be time to start over again, all the while none of the panels would be optimized.
It's a creative and unusual idea - but that doesn't make it a good one! This smacks of the type of solutions you often see from Industrial Design students - looks good in a powerpoint, completely impractical in reality. So many potential points-of-failure means that the likelyhood of being unreliable is very high. Examples: 1. Battery will wear out quickly 2. Charging contacts will be unreliable 3. Rail is exposed to elements and flora / fauna - only takes one weed to jam-up the slider bearings. 4. Robot's actuator must engage / disengage reliably with hundreds if not thousands of panel worm-drives over years of time, including wear, dirt (and see #3). 5. Payback ROI is weak, even in their demo case. This is largely because not that much efficiency is gained with aiming flat panels (esp. adding a 2nd axis) - maybe they should try to go for CPV? That would be difficult given the extreme tracking precision required....Just thinking out loud. If I were a venture capitalist, I find something with more potential to invest in. Common QBotix - use your noggins to think of something better! How about a system where intead of a moving robot, there is a central hydraulic pump and that feeds pressure via an accumulator to all panels, each of which has 2 hydraulic cylinders and local control + solenoid valves to control aiming. This idea would be much more reliable, but it still seems that you're not saving much cost vs. just putting smaller individual control motors on each panel.