QBotix Receives $1M From DoE to Advance Robotic Solar-Panel Technology

The Department of Energy (DoE) has awarded a $1 million grant to QBotix to enhance the company's robotic system for optimizing the energy output and efficiency of solar panels. The funding for the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company, which has developed a monorail system of robots for tilting panels toward the sun, is part of the DoE's SunShot Incubator Program.

The program is a national effort to make solar competitive with other forms of electricity in the US by the end of the decade. The funding was part of $10 million in grants awarded to innovative solar projects as part of the program, according to the DoE.

The QBotix Tracking System is the first comprehensive and intelligent system to use robots to automate solar-panel tracking, reducing the electricity requirement of the system by 20 percent while increasing the output of the panels by up to 15 percent, according to the company.

QBotix plans to use the funding not only to improve its existing technology, but also to advance the technology to support what's called concentrated photovoltaics (CVP), Michael Kanellos, a QBotix spokesman, told Design News.

Currently, the robotic system works like typical trackers, tilting the panels toward the sun about once every 40 minutes as the sun moves. A CVP system, however, tilts the panels so all of the available sunlight at any given time will hit the panel directly, he said. "So it's not just the sun, it's like having 200 or 300 suns powering the panels," Kanellos told us. To support CVP, QBotix must enhance its robotic system to tilt the panels faster, at a rate about once every five minutes, he said.

QBotix also will use the money to fund more demonstrations of the system to prove how it can change the game for the management of solar-energy systems. "Solar is a very conservative industry," Kanellos said. "Everybody likes the idea but is hesitant to invest. The more data we have, the better."

QBotix currently runs its own demonstration of the robotic tracking system, with another up and running at a facility owned by Sol Orchard, a solar power plant developer based in Carmel, Calif.

The company is expected to name another major customer in January, when the QBotix Tracking System will help manage a complete solar power plant built for a municipal government agency, Kanellos added. He declined to name the agency or municipality.

The award from the DoE shows the government sees the bigger picture in terms of making solar more viable, as much of the focus until now has been making solar panels themselves less expensive and more efficient rather than investing in what is called the "balance of systems," Kanellos said. This term refers to the other technology like trackers that make an entire solar-power system work, or "everything but the solar panel," he said.

While solar panels themselves are relatively inexpensive and efficient, the technology around them in a solar-energy system now costs 67 percent of the entire deployment, Kanellos said. "It's good to see that researchers and other companies are seeing the importance of the balance of systems in solar development," he said.

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