SunPower wants to employ panel-cleaning ‘bots

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 (unless the solar farm in questions is one continuous line of panels). 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, EarthTechling