Robot-run solar tracking could tilt power up, costs down

Everyone knows that big solar arrays that can track the sun will deliver more power than fixed-tilt systems.

The perennial question has been how best to accomplish the tracking. Now, with $6.5 million in new venture capital investment, a Silicon Valley startup’s idea of using roving robots to move the panels is hitting the market.

The big benefit of the robot tracking system, QBotix said, is the cost savings gained by not having to use individual tracking motors, which are “expensive, unreliable, and complex to install and maintain,” while also avoiding the need for “large structures requiring thousands of pounds of steel and concrete.”

QBotix said the new VC brings its funding to $7.5 million, including investment from Siemens Venture Capital. Another arm of Siemens – Siemens Technology-to-Business – said it tested the QBotix Tracking System (QTS) on a grid-connected solar installation beginning last October, and found that it works “with high accuracy and reliability.”

QBotix said that with its system, two robots – one lead, another backup – can work a 300-kilowatt block of mounted panels, sliding along on a track and adjusting each mounting system one after the other so the panels are constantly reoriented to sop up maximum sun power.

“Each robot replaces hundreds of individual motors and controllers found on conventional tracking systems,” the company ssaid. “The embedded intelligence and data communication capabilities of each autonomous robot optimize power plant performance and enables detailed operational knowledge at an unprecedented level.”

In the end, the company said, the robots deliver the equivalent of dual-axis tracking systems – which follow the sun both horizontally and vertically – at the cost of current single-axis trackers, which can only move vertically or horizontally.  The result is 15 percent more energy than a single-axis tracking system delivers, at the same price, the company says.

As complicated as the system might sound, QBotix said it can be installed “in minutes without using heavy equipment” and is compatible with “all standard solar modules, inverters and foundation types used in ground-mounted installations for commercial, distributed generation and utility deployments.”

If it works as well as advertised, QBotix could find itself a ready market as solar developers look to trim costs.

But one day — probably a long way off, admittedly — even the robots might be supplanted: Recently we reported on researchers at the University of Wisconsin who, taking a cue from sunflower plants, had devised a new solar panel tracking technology that utilized a nanocomposite made up of a liquid crystalline elastomer and carbon nanontubes to allow for tracking with no mechanical system whatsoever.

* Pete Danko, EarthTechling