Autonomous robots gaining traction with solar installers

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From pv magazine USA

As the United States pursues a wholesale shift from a fossil fuel-based energy system to one defined by renewables, it is an all-hands-on-deck scenario to stay on track to meet climate goals. Some of these hands may turn out to be robotic. 

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) projects demand for 800,000 new solar workers by 2030 to build the projects the United States needs to stay on pace with its decarbonization plan. However, 44% of solar industry employers report that it is “very difficult” to find qualified applicants, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC). 

With this challenge in mind, solar developers are increasingly exploring and implementing autonomous, robotic versions of solar installers, particularly at the utility scale. Two companies making recent moves are Terabase Energy and Sarcos Robotics Corp. 

Terabase secures funding

Terabase Energy, the developer of the Terafab automated installation system, says it recently secured $25 million in funding. The capital raise was led by Prelude Ventures, SJF Ventures, and EDP Ventures to support a commercial scale-up of its technology.

The company describes Terafab as an automated “field factory” that can double installation productivity. The installation system makes use of digital twins, logistics software, an on-site digital command center, a field-deployed automated assembly line, and installation rovers that can operate 24/7.

An automated rover installs solar panels in the Terabase “field factory.” Image: Terabase

Terabase also opened a manufacturing facility this year in Woodland, California, and described it as “a factory to make factories.” The facility is currently manufacturing the first gigawatt Terafab assembly line, with capacity to make more than 10 GW of Terafabs per year.

Terabase said its system will double labor productivity compared to traditional utility-scale installation methods. The system offers high-throughput, 24/7 operation, and modularity to enable rapid ramp-ups and higher solar field construction speeds, significantly reducing project schedules. 

“We successfully field-tested Terafab last year, building 10 MW of a 400 MW site in Texas,” said Matt Campbell, chief executive officer and co-founder of Terabase. “[This] launch is the next step forward to rapid commercial scale-up.”

Terafab is pegged for commercial deployment starting in the third quarter of 2023. The company said that the automated installation system reduces the levelized cost of electricity for utility-scale solar projects. It is also scalable, built on a modular design that can be replicated and deployed quickly.

Blattner and Sarcos

Blattner Company recently partnered with Sarcos Robotics to optimize employee safety and enhance the efficiency of PV module installation for utility-scale solar projects.

“We are extremely optimistic about the use of robots for solar construction to help address the workforce shortages, productivity, and safety challenges that are currently slowing down the progress of US solar initiatives,” said Matt Hadsell, senior manager-innovation and development for Blattner.

Sarcos’ proof-of-concept robotic system consists of an autonomous working vehicle, featuring the company’s Guardian XM robotic arm and an autonomous delivery vehicle. The solution uses cameras to identify where the PV panels need to be installed. The robotic arm then autonomously lifts up the panel using a vacuum system and places it approximately where it needs to be clamped to the mounting structure.

“The arm then goes into a special mode where the person clamping the panel can easily move that panel however they need, in order to align it and attach it into the panels,” Sarcos explains in a video on its website.

The partnership will build upon the Sarcos Outdoor Autonomous Manipulation of Photovoltaic Panels (O-AMPP) project, which is funded through the support of the US Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO). The O-AMPP project started in 2021 and Sarcos expects to commercialize its solution by late 2024.

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