Drones Are Key To Designing Solar Arrays Of The Future

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Originally published on Solar Love.

Time was, if you wanted to build a solar panel facility, you found a piece of vacant land that had southerly exposure, laid out a few rows with stakes and string, then went to work installing the supporting structure and the panels themselves. Today, that is so 2015. Designing new solar farms has gone hi-tech. It now uses drones to map the area and advanced computer modeling to orient the solar panels correctly and squeeze as many of them as possible into the available space.

The price of solar panels has plummeted in the past few years to the point where solar power is almost competitive with fossil fuel alternatives. Improving the bottom line can’t depend on lower prices for solar panels. Now to move the solar revolution forward, drones, analytic software, and sensors are needed to maximize the amount of power produced at the lowest possible cost.

“Solar companies and service providers are using many different types of technology to optimize both the deployment of solar and the operations and maintenance of solar,” says Justin Baca, the vice president of markets and research for the solar group Solar Energy Industries Association. He adds: “It’s all about cutting costs.”

“It’s like a big Tetris puzzle,” says Matt Campbell, vice president of power plant products at SunPower. He and his team are hovering over a computer screen that shows a detailed image of land that one of SunPower’s 10 survey drones has collected by flying overhead. Tetris-looking colored blocks that represent solar panels and inverters are placed over the image. With that information available, a SunPower engineer can fit as many of the blocks as possible onto the available land.

SunPower uses algorithms it designed itself to take into account hundreds of factors that a human engineer might overlook, such as where transmission lines will be or how much shade will be created by the panels as they follow the sun throughout the day. Tom Werner, SunPower’s CEO says using software and drones makes it possible for his engineers to design a project in 90% less time than it took 4 years ago.

Not everyone is convinced. Jerry Rand, manager of business development for FirstSolar, says drones and robots aren’t sophisticated enough or affordable. “A lot of these technologies are in the experimentation phase and not quite there yet.” The falling prices for solar panels also make it difficult to justify an investment in emerging and more expensive technology, Rand adds. “With the solar module price collapse, it’s a tough time to be truly inventive.”

But technology can play other critical roles in the solar industry. Strata Solar, which has more than 1 gigawatt of solar power facilities under management, uses drones with infrared cameras to keep its installations operating at peak efficiency. The images from the cameras can reveal any solar panels that aren’t producing electricity. “It’s a great way to check on the overall health of the systems,” says Gabe Cantor, Strata Solar’s director of design engineering. “You can spot problems down to the cell level.”

The solar power industry is still in its infancy, accounting for just 1% of all electricity generated in America today. Technological tools will be vital to increasing that number.

Source and photo credit: The Guardian

Reprinted with permission.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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