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Cleaning Clean Energy: Robots to Keep Solar Panels Spotless

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.