A robot for dry cleaning photovoltaic systems

An autonomous and sustainable robotic system for cleaning photovoltaic panels, without the use of water: this new solution, developed for Enel Green Power by a Sicilian start-up, tells a story of successful innovation.

When it comes to photovoltaics, dust is the enemy. This is not a trivial concept, even if it may seem so at first glance; actually, the problem of soiling – the accumulation of dust, dirt or sand on PV panels – can decrease, sometimes significantly, the performance of solar power systems. It’s an issue that’s particularly important in desert areas, areas with low rainfall, and those characterized by the presence of very dusty soil, where soiling can have a heavy impact on energy yield, but in any case, it’s something that concerns solar power everywhere, because regardless of location, cleaning the panels still involves costs, including environmental ones.

The approach normally adopted involves cleaning the surfaces with pressure washers or tractors equipped with hydraulic brushes; both cases entail water consumption and gas emissions from the motor vehicles used.

To develop a different, more sustainable solution that can also be adopted in large solar parks, Enel Green Power – in collaboration with REIWA, a Sicilian startup already active in the study and development of robotic technology solutions – has perfected SandStorm, an advanced cleaning robot that uses a system of specially designed and manufactured brushes, but most importantly, capable of moving along the rows of panels autonomously and recharging autonomously, returning to its docking station at the end of its task.

Sturdy and versatile, SandStormadapts – when necessary – even to the uneven alignment of the panel trackers, managing to move autonomously from one row of panels to the next, crossing distances greater than 50 cm.

This solution offers advantages across the board:

  • Operation:robotic cleaning can take place at night, during unproductive hours, which also avoids shading the panels, which can cause electrical imbalances and damage to the panels.
  • Safety: no human assistance is necessary, so there’s no risk to the operators.
  • Plant efficiency: the panels can be cleaned – at low cost – every day, minimizing soiling.
  • Sustainability: nowater or diesel is consumed , thus eliminating the associated CO2 emissions.
  • Training: this solution promotesthe training of more qualified personnel (for example, for on-site maintenance of robotic devices), leading to the creation of more specialized jobs.

After winning a challenge launched by Enel Green Power through the Enel Open Innovability platform, the cleaning system was successfully tested first in the EGP Innovation Lab at Passo Martino (Catania) and then on an industrial scale in a section (1-MW) of the Enel Green Power plant in Totana (Spain).

Today EGP is scaling up the application of this technology with an initial contract for the implementation of around 150 robots in two Spanish PV plants, Totana and Las Corchas, for a total capacity of 135 MW. In addition, thanks to the technical, commercial and strategic support of Kilometro Rosso – one of the leading innovation districts in Europe (active in Bergamo since 2003) – Reiwa attracted the interest of the venture capital fund Cycero, which provided financing to start the full industrialization of production and meet the service volumes required by Enel Green Power itself.

But technology never sleeps. In fact, a collaborative rover has just been tested at the EGP facility in Passo Martino: capable of moving autonomously within a solar park, this robot on wheels will allow the SandStorm robots (the ‘cleaners’) to move between rows of panels to be cleaned, reducing the number of robots required for each plant, and as a result, the operational complexity and the initial investment as well.

So the SandStorm case has turned out to be a success story, with all the right ingredients: a collaboration between complementary businesses; reduced costs and increased renewable production; the development of an efficient, competitive made-in-Sicily technology; the activation of a real industrial supply chain; and, most importantly, the reduction of environmental impacts.

Because it’s important to be green, but it’s even more so to be green in a sustainable way.