Kibbutz Recruits 100 Solar Panel Robots To Combat Desert Dust

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The humble chore of cleaning solar panels plays a key role in solar cell efficiency, especially in desert regions where frequent dust storms and lack of rain combine to reduce panel output by up to 35 percent. That same lack of rain also presents a huge challenge for cost-effective cleaning operations, but a company called Ecoppia has developed one solution: E4, a solar panel robot that requires almost no water to operate.

Kibbutz Ketura’s Ketura Sun solar park in Israel’s Negev desert is the site of the new Ecoppia operation, which according to the company is the first all-automatic, centrally controlled solar panel robot cleaning operation in the world.

solar paneal robot by Ecoppia
E4 solar panel robot courtesy of Ecoppia.

Waterless (Almost) Solar Power Cleaning Technology From Ecoppia

Kibbutz Ketura was among the sites we visited on a recent technology tour of Israel hosted by the organization Kinetis, so we can tell you first hand that dust is a critical issue for a cost-effective solar power business model.

Aside from using as little water as possible, solar panel cleaning faces another challenge, which is to keep the panel surface from scratching.

Ecoppia’s E4 solution is a robotic device that deploys a soft microfiber combined with airflow, traveling on a platform that applies no pressure on the panel surface.

At Ketura Sun, the company’s fleet of almost 100 E4 robots can clean the entire solar park every night, which naturally leads to the question of how much power an automatic system like this will draw from a solar park, and whether that would require new storage facilities for night-time use.

solar panel robots needed to clean dust
Before the robots came: Ketura Sun solar panel with dust (photo by Tina Casey).

The answer is zero and no because each E4 comes equipped with its own solar panel/battery system.

In addition to scavenging its own solar power, E4 also harvests kinetic energy through a proprietary regenerative braking system developed by Ecoppia, which it calls Eco-Hybrid. The system enables energy capture with every downward trip the E4 makes.

The all-automatic system solves a number of other solar panel cleaning problems that apply globally but are especially acute in the desert, as demonstrated by Ketura Sun.

In previous years, cleaning at Ketura Sun was conducted manually. Each cleaning cycle took five days and was limited to 10 times per year due to the expense of labor and water. The result was that efficiency degraded significantly between each cleaning cycle.

The use of manual labor also involves some measure of workplace hazards for personnel as well as the risk of damaging solar panels and related equipment.

In security-sensitive failities, there is also a benefit to reducing reliance on traveling crews to perform routine maintenance tasks.

E4 underwent a limited pilot test at Ketura Sun and the resulting increase in efficiency was significant enough to build up the complete force of almost 100 robots with a schedule of nightly cleanings.

Solar Panel Robot: It’s All Part Of The Plan For Global Domination

Ketura Sun was developed by the Israeli company Arava Power (of which Siemens owns a 40 percent stake btw) in 2006, as the first commercial solar park in the Middle East. It’s part of a broad solar power plan for the Arava region of the Negev Desert, designed to accomplish two main goals.

One is goal is regional. The tourist city Eilat routinely relies heavily on diesel generators that were initially intended only for emergency backup. With a network of solar parks, planners expect to eliminate those generators within a few years. Arava Power alone already has seven solar parks producing or in development in the Negev with a total capacity of 80 MW.

The other goal has to do with competition in the global energy market, in the context of climate change, population growth, and increasing demand for energy in developing economies.

Clean tech companies like Arava Power are racing to develop clean energy solutions for developing economies before they get hooked on more diesel-generated electricity.

Although diesel-generated electricity is not that big of an issue in the U.S., globally it already accounts for about nine percent of electricity production, while aging, inadequate central power plants and grids in some countries are leading to increased demand for inexpensive diesel generators.

The kibbutz-based solar parks we toured demonstrated several different solar power concepts including concentrating solar power, all with an eye toward marketing the technology globally.

That export-awareness includes maintenance solutions. With world water resources already straining to the breaking point, a competitive solar power model necessarily includes a conservation-oriented cleaning regimen, especially when targeted to arid regions.

So, although Ecoppia’s 100-strong force of E4 solar panel robots at Ketura may be a world first, it is most likely far from the last.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3329 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey