Many renewable energy projects, once a site is found and construction begins, deal with a lot of land, a lot of labor and a lot of building materials and equipment. Imagine an entire range of rolling hills that slowly becomes a wind farm , or an empty expanse of desert badlands gradually filling up with row upon row of 10,000 or more photovoltaic panels. The finished product can be a majestic sight, sure, but before the control room fires up and power starts flowing onto the grid, there's still the matter of all that construction that has to happen first.
Companies that can cost-effectively speed up this process while still producing a reliable and long-lasting product could probably clean up with the renewable energy market performing as strongly as it is right now.
A colleague of mine, James Montgomery of RenewableEnergyWorld.com introduced me to Alion Energy (pronounced like the words "a" and "lion"). This company's process builds solar photovoltaic panels into a sort of ramp structure that uses fewer materials to put together than other methods, and the entire process is done with robots.
And why not use robots? Similar processes using robots are already used to lay traintracks or build sidewalks. Alion's president and CEO Mark Kingsley is a veteran of ABB's robotics unit, Trina.
During construction, the "Rover" installation robot (seen above, courtesy to Alion Energy) travels along a concrete railing built for the project that also serves as the mounting for the solar panels. To begin with, Rover is loaded up with solar panels. Rover fixes the solar panel legs into the concrete railing with a high-strength, high-durability epoxy that is used in bridge construction. The panes and their preattached mountings come next, attached to the legs. With that, the robot moves on to the next solar panel.
One of the big advantages to this approach is using fewer materials. The concrete that the railings are shaped out of is cheap and can be acquired on a local basis. There's no large panes of glass to worry about transporting, unbroken, to the site. No bulky metal frames or fasteners are needed.
Labor costs, similarly, can be reduced this way. No trenches have to be dug, no nuts and bolts need tightening. Plus, the robots don't get fatigued by repetitive work in areas where the sun beats down with a lot of heat, either.
As far as scalability goes, Alion told RenewableEnergyWorld.com that the benefits of the approach only increase when applied to bigger solar projects. Essentially, the bigger the project, the more money can be saved. The railing system can be used in areas with high winds or prone to storms, and in rocky areas or urban brownfields, according to the company.
With Rover's job done and the solar power feeding onto the power grid, another robot takes over to perform maintenance duties. A smaller robot named "Spot" (above) performs automatic cleaning of the mounted solar panels so dust and dirt do not accumulate and cause a loss of generation efficiency. Spot has his own solar-powered battery and his own solar panel, and when he isn't working, he "lives" near one end of of the concrete rail system before sliding across the panels to perform his duties. Spot can also use a hedge-clipping attachment for vegetation management, where and when it is needed.
Automated, efficient construction could potentially mean a lot for the renewable energy sector when and where it can be used. Increasing a generation technology's speed-to-market can only make it more attractive to the prospective investor — the people without which a project can't reach fruition.