Cleaning Clean Energy: Robots to Keep Solar Panels Spotless

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To soak up the sun as efficiently as possible, solar panels need to be kept near spotless. But with some solar fields covering as many as 3,000 acres it would take a lot of squeegees to clean all those photovoltaic panels. Which is why three students from Cal Tech and UCLA created a solar-panel cleaning robot.

Two operators place the robot at the start of a line of solar panels. The robot—which looks sort of like a refrigerator door—glides along, cleaning with soft rotating brushes and squeegees as it travels down the line of panels. The robot feeds information via a computer to an operator who in turn provides commands remotely. The robot isn’t yet Rosie Jetson, but it’s a start.

Dirty solar panels can have annual energy losses of up to 6 percent, according to a 2006 study by the PowerLight Corporation. Last year the American solar industry grew by 109 percent, according to a Solar Energy Industries Association report. Cleaning all these dirty panels is potentially a $3 billion global market. For their efforts, the students won second place in the First Look West competition in early May, a regional Department of Energy competition.