Israeli solar panel robot cleaners ‘outsourced’ to India

Ecoppia to partner with local company to build photovoltaic cleaning system facility in Chennai

An Ecoppia robot cleaning-crew system (Courtesy)
An Ecoppia robot cleaning-crew system (Courtesy)

One gigawatt of electricity can power as many as a million homes, the energy rule of thumb goes – and with 100 gigawatts of power to be produced by 2022 from solar energy systems, India will have more than enough green energy to light and heat homes, businesses and office buildings.

It’s the world’s most ambitious solar energy program, with tens of thousands of photovoltaic panels to be installed throughout the country. And to keep those panels functioning efficiently, Israel-based Ecoppia is building a plant in India to manufacture its robotic solar cleaners at a new, state-of-the-art facility near Chennai.

With 300 sunny days annually, India is an ideal place for solar energy to thrive. That is why the government is promoting an ambitious program to rapidly expand solar energy production. As a result of incentives and changes in the law, solar system installations jumped four times in 2015 over the year before, and 2016 is set to be another banner year, according to government officials.

Solar energy production begins with the collection of light by solar cells installed on fiberglass photovoltaic panels. When light energy strikes the solar cell, electrons are knocked loose from the atoms in the semiconductor material, and are used to form an electrical circuit, which is transformed into current.

For the system to work properly, the fiberglass panels need to be kept clean – a major job requiring large numbers of workers and huge amounts of water, both requirements that might make such a large-scale project unfeasible for a country that has a major water shortage, as well as an energy one.

Enter Ecoppia’s robotic cleaning system. Instead of using water to clean panels, Ecoppia’s robot cleaners are equipped microfibers, with each robot assigned to a row of PV panels. Using controlled air flow, the robots push the accumulated dirt off panels, as they glide along the surface of panels on their polyurethane-coated aluminum frame using wheels.

Each robot can cover about 100 square feet of panel a minute, saving not only water, but time. The robots are controlled by a central cloud-based control panel, and can operate in tandem (starting and finishing at the same time) or autonomously, based on the instructions given by controllers.

Ecoppia said that demand for the system has grown sharply, and as a result the Israeli company has partnered with locally based Sanmina Corp. to oversee the majority of Ecoppia’s production move to India.

“We’ve seen demand grow across the board in 2015, but India remains our top market and the natural choice for us to build a state-of-the-art production facility,” said Eran Meller, CEO of Ecoppia. “To do that we needed a strong partner, one that could help scale up production quickly. With Sanmina as our OEM, there’s no doubt we’re moving into a very strong market position.”

Sanmina has had a long history of manufacturing hardware, optics, electronics and clean technology for business clients and provides Ecoppia with a clear advantage in being able to quickly scale-up to meet the demands of India’s, and the world’s, largest solar projects, said Meller.

“The momentum we’re seeing in the market suggests that Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi’s goal of 100 GW of solar by 2022 will be achievable and we are excited that we can play a role in providing cost-effective solar energy, bring new industry to India and create local jobs.”

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