Video Interview: Robotic Solar Module Cleaning Can Increase Generation by Up to 5% A Year

With robotics, it has been an easy move from a 24-cleaning cycle a year to a 365-day cleaning cycles


According to Mercom’s Q1 2022 India Solar Market Update, India added over 3 GW of solar capacity in the first quarter (Q1) of 2022. The country is expected to add approximately 14.9 GW of solar in 2022, with significant growth opportunities ahead.

With the increase in solar installations comes the necessity of maintaining them over the span of the power purchase agreements and ensuring the power generation remains optimum. This includes regular cleaning of the dust built upon solar modules.

Traditionally, modules were cleaned manually using water. More environmentally-friendly robotic cleaning has taken root in the Indian solar sector in recent years due to its numerous benefits.

Ecoppia is one of the leading waterless robotic cleaning solutions companies for solar photovoltaics with over 16 GW of agreements. They offer a cloud-based platform and a suite of advanced, fully autonomous robots cost-effectively, maximizing the performance of utility-scale PV sites worldwide.

Mercom spoke to Nalin Kumar Sharma, the President of Ecoppia for the Asia-Middle East & Pacific regions, to discuss the application and the future of robotics in the Indian solar sector and Ecoppia’s products and plans for the coming years.

Can you tell us about Ecoppia’s robotic cleaning and its benefits?

At Ecoppia, we identified that the only thing not sustainable in the renewable energy industry is water use. Also, workers should not have to clean the solar panels in the scorching temperatures of 50° celsius. With robotic cleaning now available in the market, this task has become more sustainable and efficient. With Ecoppia’s robotic cleaning solutions, which are cloud-based and AI-based, the modules are cleaned at night. Developers can maximize the power output of the projects in the morning and ensure that the tariffs are competitive. With robotics, it has been easy to move from a 24-cleaning cycle a year to 365-day cleaning cycles, which translates to a generation gain of 2% to 5% per annum. Even during the pandemic, robotic cleaning ensured that the modules were cleaned regularly to generate maximum power.

What is driving the demand for robotic module cleaning systems in India?

With the labor costs increasing by 9% to 10% yearly, project costs in India have seen a considerable rise, leading to more Independent Power Producers (IPPs) opting for robotic cleaning. Another driving factor is the water scarcity across the country, as water for basic necessities will always be prioritized over cleaning solar panels. Over time, robots have also managed to provide a better return on investments within five years and manage costs over the life of the project. Our clients have been able to offer competitive tariffs post the adoption of robotics in their operation. Engie’s projects, which we managed back in 2016-17, could offer the lowest tariff of ₹4.34 (~$0.055)/kWh. Among the recent projects, Softbank Energy could offer the lowest competitive rates of ₹2.44 to ₹2.64 (~$0.030 – $0.033)/kWh. The clients have managed to get payback above 20%, and in many cases over 60%, between 18-60 months. This has been driving the adoption of robotics in greenfield and brownfield projects.

How is the market in India responding to solar robotic cleaning solutions, and which states are adopting this technology the most?

I was pretty amazed by the adoption rate in India; we have seen adoption right across the length and breadth of the country. We have projects in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. Our robotics have been deployed in Rajasthan, where most solar projects have been installed because of the high irradiance. We see adoption rates over 60% in the case of greenfield projects, and we are seeing a lot of traction in brownfield projects as well. I predict that by 2025, almost 90% of greenfield projects will be built with robotics from day one, and almost 40% of the brownfield projects running on manual cleaning will convert to robotics over the next three years.

What are the main challenges in the Indian market with Solar PV operations and maintenance?

In the initial stages, most developers were skeptical about opting for robotics considering the modules’ safety and avoiding unnecessary damage. But over time, with efficient products being introduced in the market, IPPs are now more open to the idea of robotics in power projects. We have seen a rise in demand for robots that run and scale the length of the solar module and, in many cases, the whole project. Another challenge we face is the quality of module mounting structures that either sink into the ground or start bending over time, making it difficult to operate robots on them. Robots need to operate smoothly across undulated land parcels.

How do the products offered by Ecoppia help manage these challenges?

Before the deployment, we share our requirements with the client, who will then share it with the EPC to ensure the angle between the two tables is kept at a relaxed eight degrees compared to the original three degrees. We also conduct joint prototype testing to ensure the mounting structures are reliable before the client place the entire order. Also, in the field, when the EPCs install the first megawatt, we work with the client and the EPCs to show them how to test compatibilities with the robots and give them some frames they can use to test the table out.

We are the only company offering a slew of robotic products, so we started with Ecoppia E4, mainly for seasonal and fixed tilt. We came up with the first robotic solution for the tracker, which was called Ecoppia T4, with which we have over seven installations to date, mainly catering to small rows. We recently launched Ecoppia H4, a hybrid product that uses the Helix technology and helps map out the row to ensure there is zero damage to the modules. The H4 moves horizontally and helps clean vertically to ensure efficient cleaning and runs on four wheels which operate on different motors to make it easier to operate on undulated surfaces.  In three to four years, Ecoppia plans to introduce a product called Ecoppia Airy platform, which can offer the analytics related to the project and help in predictive analysis of the modules and mounting structures. Currently, this service is offered for free to our clients.

With this functionality, we can also work closely with the tracker manufacturers to provide the data on trackers that do not rotate or are about to fail. This, over time, will help make the system more robust and build an ecosystem in the solar industry which is more reliable and predictable.

Mercom will be hosting a webinar titled ‘O&M  Innovations: Optimum Management of Solar Assets’ on July 19, 2022, to discuss challenges related to operation and maintenance of solar assets and the role of robotics.