Most Greenfield Solar Projects Amenable to Robotic Cleaning: Interview
Robots provide safety to solar modules and reliability in difficult geographies
Solar projects are increasingly opting for robotic cleaning, which provides more reliability than manual cleaning and up to 5% more energy production. With solar capacity poised to grow multifold in the next few years, Israel-based robotic cleaning company Ecoppia is gearing up to increase its manufacturing capacity in India.
Nalin Kumar Sharma, President, Asia, Middle East & Pacific, Ecoppia, shared insights into the industry and his company’s plans in a freewheeling chat on the sidelines of Mercom India Renewable Summit 2023.
Here are some excerpts:
Is the demand for robotic cleaning growing, given its impact on production?
Almost 90% of greenfield projects from conception choose robotic cleaning.
For brownfield projects, nearly 40% of the capacity for cleaning panels with water is now transitioning to robotic cleaning by retrofitting the portfolio.
There are primarily three reasons which are enabling it. First, in the case of manual cleaning, where you cannot clean every day, there is significant generation loss, whereas robotic cleaning helps clean modules every night. So, the generation is typically between 2% and 5% higher compared to a 15-day manual cycle.
The second is an acute shortage of water. For instance, the local population in Tamil Nadu protested because they could not get drinking water, and billions of liters were wasted cleaning solar panels.
Third, the scale of the projects increased significantly. We used to have 1-3 MW projects in 2010-11, but now almost every developer has a 500 MW or a GW project.
So, it is not humanly possible to clean these modules even with thousands of labor force.
What is the cost of robotic cleaning per MW?
The cost depends on three factors – the scale of the project, layout, and location.
For instance, a project in a desert like in Rajasthan will have a better return with robotic cleaning than a project in Tamil Nadu, which has six months of rain.
Typically, robotic cleaning constitutes less than 1% of the CAPEX of the entire project.
What is the payback period?
The numbers can range from 18-60 months, depending on the project size.
For example, the numbers would be higher if we were doing a brownfield project where the plant was not conceived using robots.
We retrofitted an operating project with 16 robots per MW, whereas we did many greenfield projects; the numbers are as low as 1-2 robots per MW.
The net present value and the internal rate of return (IRR) are attractive.
Can you quantify the return in terms of MW?
We ran a project with Brookfield that offered a 3% energy generation gain. For projects in Tamil Nadu, the numbers are close to 1.5%.
The IRR ranges from 20% to 80%, depending on the project.
Additionally, robotic cleaning provides insurance under challenging times. For example, projects had over 150 days of complete lockdown during Covid. It took a lot of work to find a workforce for cleaning. However, Ecoppia performed cleaning on all 150 days and never missed a single cleaning cycle.
Are you manufacturing your robots in India?
Our global manufacturing is in India. Although we are headquartered in Israel, the robots are made in Mohali.
We started with a southern state and later went with a bigger facility, which can be ramped up significantly. The current capacity is at 5 GW per year.
But we have sufficient space to ramp it up to 20 GW when required in the next three to five years.
Additionally, India houses the top personnel of our global team.
(Note: Sections of the interview have been paraphrased for better reading. Check out the video for a full chat)