SunPower Takes A Shine To Panel-Cleaning Robots

If robots can keep solar panels facing the sun for less cost then traditional methods – as the company Qbotix claims with its novel tracking system – it only makes sense that a similar technology be put to use to keep the panels clean.

Greenbotics thinks so – and so does SunPower. The San Jose-based solar giant this week announced the acquisition of startup Greenbotics, whose “CleanFeet” robot system claims to put a shine on large solar arrays using 90 percent less water than manual cleaning while getting the job done in one-third the time. Oh, yeah: They don’t mind working at night, either, avoiding energy-producing disruptions. Here’s the system in action:

SunPower said that panel-cleaning needs vary from location to location depending, as you might expect, on how dusty and windy the area is. Some places the scrubbing might need to happen just a few times a year. Others, a lot more.

“Customers in markets such as the Western U.S., the Middle East and Chile will especially benefit, as dust and debris is a challenge and water is in shorter supply,” SunPower CEO Tom Werner said in a statement. Werner said that CleanFeet “will allow us to further maximize the proven system performance of our high efficiency, most reliable solar panels, which is critical to a project’s economics and levelized cost of electricity.”

As the video indicates, the robots can’t do the job without some help from humans. In a promotional infographic, the company said that it would take a three-person team operating six robots eight hours to clean 6 megawatts worth of panels.

One last thing: Last year we wrote about Davis, Calif.-based Greenbotics when it was one of three regional winners of a U.S. Department of Energy Clean Energy Business Plan competition. Pretty good choice by the judges, it appears.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Steven Kelley

    Maybe they should attach tracks to the sides (north and south) of the panel that the robot is connected to and follows the tracks, and have a different robot for each line of panels. You might not even have to man them at all other than making sure sensors and such are properly.

    • Pete Danko

      Yeah, it does seem like improvements are possible, which is why, I’m sure, SunPower acquired the company — it will give them the ability to build fully integrated systems. Will be interesting to see where it goes.