Drones Make Solar Farms More Efficient
Using an automated surveying and design process has helped one solar developer produce more power. Bonus: They also put robots to work cleaning the solar panels.
When the 56-megawatt Gala Solar Power Plant that just broke ground in Cook County, Oregon, is completed at the end of 2017, it will be the state’s largest operating solar farm. But the project is already distinct: It’s among the first wave of solar farms to be designed using drone technology. SunPower, the solar developer, deployed drones to survey the site — carefully mapping the topography and taking detailed aerial photos. SunPower then used its custom software to automatically analyze hundreds of factors and plot out the best locations for each panel.
A combination of the new design process and modular, flexible solar panels means that more energy will be able to be generated from the site. “You can get up to 60% more energy on the same site,” says Tom Werner, CEO of SunPower. “So it’s a huge cost savings for the customer, particularly in difficult sites where they’re maybe not contiguous, or where there is a lot of topography variation.”
Credit: Fast Co Exist
For SunPower, automation is also a time-saver: The process of using drones and software takes 90% less time than surveying and design took in the past.
“Normally, we would have to have multiple trips of humans to the site, because we’d have to measure things like terrain, like where there are obstructions, rivers, streams . . . With the software and drones, we eliminate all of the manual trips,” Werner says.
After the drones collect and feed data to SunPower’s software, algorithms compare options for the solar farm layout and optimize for internal rate of return or the maximum amount of energy. “We can evaluate hundreds more design options,” Werner adds.