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  • 03.01.17

Drones Are Making Solar Farms Way More Efficient

Using an automated surveying and design process has helped one solar developer produce more power. Bonus: They also put robots to work cleaning the solar panels.

When the 56-megawatt Gala Solar Power Plant that just broke ground in Cook County, Oregon, is completed at the end of 2017, it will be the state’s largest operating solar farm. But the project is already distinct: It’s among the first wave of solar farms to be designed using drone technology. SunPower, the solar developer, deployed drones to survey the site–carefully mapping the topography and taking detailed aerial photos. SunPower then used its custom software to automatically analyze hundreds of factors and plot out the best locations for each panel.

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A combination of the new design process and modular, flexible solar panels means that more energy will be able to be generated from the site. “You can get up to 60% more energy on the same site,” says Tom Werner, CEO of SunPower. “So it’s a huge cost savings for the customer, particularly in difficult sites where they’re maybe not contiguous, or where there is a lot of topography variation.”

For SunPower, automation is also a time-saver: The process of using drones and software takes 90% less time than surveying and design took in the past.

“Normally, we would have to have multiple trips of humans to the site, because we’d have to measure things like terrain, like where there are obstructions, rivers, streams . . . With the software and drones, we eliminate all of the manual trips,” Werner says.

After the drones collect and feed data to SunPower’s software, algorithms compare options for the solar farm layout and optimize for internal rate of return or the maximum amount of energy. “We can evaluate hundreds more design options,” Werner adds.

The drones and software are part of the latest version of the company’s Oasis solar platform, which also includes solar modules that aren’t linked to each other and are shorter and wider than usual, so they can be installed on irregular land that couldn’t have been used in the past. Since the platform launched in September 2016, over 700 megawatts of SunPower Oasis power plants have been slated for construction in North America and China; a plant that opened Conchise County, Arizona in December included half a megawatt of Oasis-generated power.

In some installations, the company plans to use Oasis modules in conjunction with rows of crops growing in between the rows of solar arrays. “In some environments, having solar is actually beneficial to the crops, like in the Southwest, where you have an arid, very hot climate,” Werner says. If the panels occasionally shade the plants, it helps them survive.

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After the panels are installed, the company continues to use automation: A fleet of robots cleans the panels at night, saving water, time, and requiring less labor than typical washing. With the help of the robots, a team of three workers can clean 10 megawatts’ worth of solar panel in 10 hours. Manually, the same job would take 100 hours.

In 2016, the solar industry was one of the fastest-growing sources of new American jobs. The new SunPower system shows how industry jobs may change. Even installation, the most labor-intensive part of the solar industry, is becoming more automated.

“The amount of labor we have on the site has reduced dramatically in 10 years,” Werner says. Positioning the tiles that hold each solar array in the ground–a job that used to require manual effort–now happens with GPS and a machine that automatically drives in the tile.

All of this is part of the reason that solar power, which has dropped in cost 62% since 2009, will keep getting even cheaper. In less than a decade, solar may be cheaper than coal power around the whole world (in some places, it already is).

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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