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Andrew Burger headshot

Cloud-Based Solar Robotics Platform Cleans PV Panels Without Water

By Andrew Burger

From sustainable agriculture and water resource management to solar photovoltaics, Israeli companies have been at the forefront of developing new means of forging sustainable societies amid harsh and changing conditions. A strong, homegrown clean tech venture capital community is helping innovative young Israeli clean-tech companies make their mark locally and in markets around the world.

A drive on the part of solar PV industry participants to reduce balance-of-system (BoS) and “soft” costs is underway as governments in key markets such as the European Union and U.S. cut back or eliminate renewable energy R&D funding, tariffs and other incentives.

Operations and maintenance (O&M) makes up a significant portion of running solar PV power generation assets. According to a study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), fixed O&M costs for solar PV systems ranging from 1 to 10 megawatts averaged $20 +/- $10 per kilowatt-hour of energy in 2013.

Aiming to boost efficiency as well as drive those costs down significantly, Israeli clean tech startup Ecoppia has developed a high-tech means of cleaning and maintaining solar PV panels on a utility scale. Ecoppia's solution comes in the form of a cloud-based solar robotics platform that's not only highly efficient and effective, but also energy-independent and water-free. That's an important attribute not only in arid and desert regions, but also anywhere in the world where pressures on water resources threaten or may threaten water supplies.

Fully automated, self-sustaining and water-free solar panel cleaning

Accumulating on solar PV panels, dust, grit, snow and other unwanted material can degrade the performance of solar PV systems significantly. Empirical studies indicate that keeping solar panels free of dust, dirt, grit, snow and other obscuring materials can boost PV systems performance anywhere from 3 to 40 percent, Ecoppia CEO Erran Meller said in a 3p interview.

By and large, solar PV systems owners and operators continue to clean solar panels the old-fashioned way: employing large maintenance teams to douse them with soapy water, rinse them, then use squeegees to wipe away what remains. Harnessing the power of cloud computing, real-time wireless telecommunications and the latest in dry, fully-automated and chemical-free cleaning technology, Ecoppia's solar robotics solution seems space-age by comparison.

Ecoppia's fully automated E4 solar panel-cleaning platform has been proven in the field to remove 99 percent of the dust and other obscuring materials accumulated on solar panels each day. That translates into big, year-round gains and the ability to optimize electricity output, Meller told 3p.

Solar robotics, the cloud and microfiber fabric

Ecoppia's self-sustaining E4 solar robotics platform is equipped with its own solar PV panels, making it energy-independent. Rather than relying on water, the system relies on three key elements to clean solar panels much more efficiently and effectively than conventional means: gravity (PV panels' angle of inclination), air flow and a microfiber fabric that has been proven to remove particles down to mere microns in size.

Being cloud-based, the Ecoppia E4 collects, analyzes and acts on a variety of data. Its system controller pulls in data from sources including the Weather Channel “to identify optimal operating conditions and deploy robotic cleaning hardware as needed,” Meller explained.

To date, Ecoppia's solar robotics platform has been used to clean nearly 4 million solar panels, including those at Israel's first commercial solar energy project, the Ketura Sun solar PV field. Owned and operated by Arava Power, the 4.95 MW installation is located on Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel's Arava Valley.

Working with Siemens – then a part owner of Arava Power – Ecoppia pilot-tested its cloud-based solar robotics cleaning platform over a three-year period. Siemens was relying on large maintenance teams and copious amounts of distilled water to clean solar panels about 10 times a year. “They were looking worldwide for a more efficient, cost-effective solution,” Meller recounted.

Water-free and energy-independent, Ecoppia's E4 solar robotics system cleans the PV panels at Arava Power's solar park on a nightly basis. Radio-frequency communications are used to gather data that's run through E4's predictive analytics software, Meller explained.

Resulting instructions are relayed as needed from the system's control unit to client robots that do the cleaning. All the data is sent via GSM for storage in the cloud. That enables it to be accessed and acted on via the Ecoppia E4 platform's front-end software on laptops, tablets or smartphones either on-site or from remote locations.

Unprecedented PV data-gathering, communications and analytics

These data-gathering, processing and communications capabilities drive a continuous process of PV maintenance system assessment and scheduling that entails 30-minute checks on the robotics system's batteries. Over time, the platform's on-site master control unit essentially learns how to optimize maintenance and overall system performance, Meller said.

Banks and investors require rigorous independent testing and evaluation of the technology and systems used to operate and maintain solar PV generation assets in order to finance projects, Meller pointed out. “Banks may grant as much as 80 percent collateral on loans to developers. They're very risk-averse; their only collateral are the PV panels and systems. There's lots of due diligence involved.”
As far as Ecoppia is aware, its E4 solar robotics cleaning system is the only one to have been approved by PI Berlin and banks. “PI simulated 15,000 cleaning cycles on each and every panel from nine manufacturers – that's the equivalent of 20 years of nightly cleaning,” Meller elaborated.

Those simulations involved assessing the prospective effects of 900 dust storms, about 45 per year. At the end of the day, PI Berlin found zero in the way of energy conversion efficiency losses and no micro-cracks over the 20-year period.

Looking ahead, Ecoppia anticipates completing installations of its self-sustaining, water-free platform at five recently-signed Middle East project sites in the first quarter of 2015. By then the Israeli clean-tech startup expects to be cleaning 5 million PV panels a month. “I'd guess that even the largest manual solar panel cleaning company in the world isn't cleaning 10 percent of that number,” Meller stated.

*Images credit: Eccopia, Arava Power

Andrew Burger headshot

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

Read more stories by Andrew Burger