Accelerating solar transition with robotics and automation
Professor Tadhg O’Donovan, Head of the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, shares his views on how robotics and automation can deliver a real impact in leading the Middle East’s transition to solar energy and in advancing the overall sustainability agenda
As the world grapples with diminishing supplies of oil and the need to reduce carbon emissions, the adoption of disruptive technologies such as robotics and automation can be an important catalyst for the proliferation of renewable energy. Current applications and research show that robotics and automation help simplify the processes involved in support of renewable energy generation, especially for solar energy sources, which results in increased productivity, and cost savings.
Solar panel placement
Robots and automation can help unload and place solar panels onto racks at huge utility-scale sites. Thanks to outdoor, autonomous robotic technology, the process for solar field assembly can be made more efficient. Moreover, due to the fragile nature of solar cells and wafers, high-speed impact robots are more suitable and gentler than manual handling which helps ensure higher throughputs with better yield. Robots support solar construction crews, not replace them which means utility-scale contractors are able to reduce large amounts of repetitive tasks and improve productivity, bolster worker safety, and produce more MegaWatt-hours, faster.
Solar panel cleaning and maintenance
Crucial tasks such as removing dust from solar cells can be automated with the help of self-cleaning robots which is otherwise risky for people. Dust removal is critical in high dust-density regions such as the Middle East to maximise the irradiance incident on the panel and to ensure the solar panels provide maximum power output and energy yield. Water-free autonomous cleaning system can save billions of litres of water over the lifetime of a plant situated in arid regions.
Manufacturing of solar power systems
Robots in the PV manufacturing process make a significant contribution due to their ability to reduce costs considerably and enhancing precision and accuracy when compared with human intervention. Manufacturers can deploy robots and automation to make smarter and swifter production decisions, which ultimately increase precision, reduces the cost of production, and improves productivity. Silicon ingot, silicon modules, solar cells, and silicon wafers are some examples of delicate components that can be produced with high precision through robotic automation.
Integrating robotics into the renewable energy industry comes with a few of challenges too. One of the largest challenges being the power grid itself which is primarily designed to transport energy from large, centralized power plants fuelled by non-renewable sources such as natural gas and oil. Hence, the current power grid requires an overhaul before solar and other forms of distributed renewable energy can be truly integrated as a viable source of power.
Fresh power grid designs
Propelling the energy industry into the future requires fresh approaches to the power grid design. The answer lies with smart power grids that can integrate various renewable energy sources and help utility companies achieve greater efficiency and sustainability.
An increase in the integration of robotics and automation in the renewable energy industry could lead to an eventual total shift from other sources of energies such as oil to greener alternatives such as solar. Finally, this will spur the creation of “jobs of the future” – especially in high-growth data, digital and robotics engineering.
Scala Data Centers sets 2033 renewables goal
Scala Data Centers is pledging to provide its Brazil customers with 100% renewable energy by 2033.
The strategic goal follows the signing of a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with ENGIE Brasil Energia, the Brazilian's largest private energy producer. The contract guarantees the supply of more than 1,600 GWh of clean energy in 12 years, a volume sufficient to supply, for one year, a city of around 700,000 people.
Scala Data Centers is a sustainable hyperscale data center platform, founded by DigitalBridge.
Marcos Peigo, co-founder and CEO of Scala, said the agreement with ENGIE reinforces the company's non-negotiable commitment to base its operational growth on fully sustainable premises. "We focus on strategic partnerships that can scale and maintain our operation with the lowest possible environmental impact, without giving up the high quality and competitiveness that are recognised differentials of our company", the executive said.
Eduardo Sattamini, CEO of ENGIE Brasil Energia, added that offering solutions to decarbonise its customers' operations is in line with ENGIE's purpose of acting to accelerate the energy transition towards a carbon neutral society. "Our partnership with Scala demonstrates the importance of sustainability as an added value for business prosperity, in harmony with the future of people and the planet" he said.
Data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) state that, in the last five years, 50% of the PPAs contracted around the world came from leading global technology companies.
Since 2007, Google has been using renewable energy and managed, 10 years later, to zero its global carbon emissions. More recently, Amazon has committed to zero carbon emissions by 2040 and to use 100% renewable energy by 2030. Oracle has expanded its commitment to sustainability, promising to leverage its global operations using 100% renewable energy until 2025.
Peigo hopes that its "leading role" can inspire other Latin American companies to follow the same path.
In regards to the UN’s 7th Sustainable Development Goal (Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all), Brazil’s energy policies have been very effective in meeting world’s most urgent energy challenges, according to Climate Scorecard.
Firstly, access to electricity across the country is almost universal and the electricity sector is the largest in South America. The power sector in Brazil serves more than 50 million customers, granting 97% of the country’s households’ reliable electricity.
Renewables compose almost 45% of Brazil’s primary energy demand, making it one of the least carbon-intensive globally, and its national grid is made up of almost 80% from renewable sources. A large part of its renewable resources come from biofuels and hydro.
Atlas Renewable Energy, along with Unipar, a leader in chlorine, chlorides, and PVC in South America, recently signed a large-scale solar energy PPA in Brazil. The clean solar energy supply will be generated through Atlas Renewable Energy's Lar do Sol – Casablanca II photovoltaic plant in Pirapora, State of Minas Gerais.
"The adoption of renewables is becoming a staple of good corporate responsibility and we at Atlas offer a unique opportunity for large energy consumers to clean their energy matrix and at the same time be sponsors of the social and environmental programs we develop to uplift the communities where we operate," said Luis Pita, General Manager of Atlas Renewable Energy for Brazil.
Mauricio Russomanno, CEO at Unipar, added that the total amount of generated energy destined to Unipar will be enough to produce chlorine for water treatment to over 60 million people.