Robots squeeze more juice from solar panels

One of the big challenges at the sprawling Santa Rita Jail is keeping the lights on.
October 8, 2013 9:17:36 PM PDT
For energy program manager Matt Muniz, the big challenge at the sprawling Santa Rita Jail facility in Dublin isn't keeping the inmates housed, it's keeping the lights on.

"It's about 30 percent of the energy that Alameda County uses in all its buildings is right here at the jail," he says.

That's why the county has invested heavily in solar energy, including a high tech innovation designed to pull more power out of each panel. It's a box-shaped robot developed by Menlo Park-based Qbotix. Its mission is to keep each panel soaking up the maximum amount of sunlight.

"And by doing that, you produce 30-40 percent more energy from the same solar panel," says Qbotix CEO Wasiq Bokhari, Ph.D.

Bokhari says sophisticated algorithms allow the robot to act independently, gauging the position of the sun as it moves. The machines slide from panel to panel, which are placed on frames called trackers. At each stop, the robot engages with a fork tipped arm, to adjust the angle and orientation of the panels.

"The robot itself has a certain amount of intelligence and knows where it is in relation to all the trackers," explains Qbotix's Paul Breslow. "It knows exactly where it is in terms of GPS on the globe."

The system can be adjusted by remote control, and a single robot is able to control up to 1,200 solar panels. Designers envision their expanded use in massive solar farms, generating far more power than previously thought possible.

"To give you an idea, each robot is able to do one-third of a megawatt. That's enough to power 70 homes in California," says Bokhari.

And potentially, cut power bills significantly for bigger users, like Santa Rita jail.

"Our systems are being deployed all over the world," says Bokhari. "The age of solar has just begun."

Written and produced by Tim Didion.


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