A new company has a potentially revolutionary idea to help make solar energy more efficient by using drones to identify broken or improperly installed solar panels.
Enough broken panels exist to support a small industry of drone pilots to spot busted modules. Solar farms can have a considerable number of broken panels that aren’t generating any revenue.
“On one facility of 21 megawatts we found about 225 panels that weren’t working,” Harjeet Johal, a vice president of energy infrastructure at the drone company Measure, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.”The number of defective panels there is equal to about 35 homes worth of power.”
Measure uses drones to spot broken panels on solar farms. Johal estimates that the 225 broken panels cost the solar company roughly $20,000 in annual revenues.
Johal said that the panels could fail in enough ways that it was hard to get an exact estimate on the precentage of solar panels that are supposed to be in use, but are currently broken.
“It is very difficult to generalize what percentage would be broken,” Johal said. “It depends on the module manufacture, the life of the plant, the environment, what the weather is like and other factors. It is tough to generalize an average.
Johal said that sending employees out to manually locating busted panels is incredibly difficult, labor intensive and costly.
“If those dead panels go unnoticed or not corrected, that’s a significant amount of revenue for the plant owner,” Johal said. “To find 200 panels in a 200 acre farm it would take a couple of weeks. It is a very time consuming process. But we can do that with drones in seven hours.”
“A module can be partially or fully defective or wired improperly,” Johal said. “We use both visual and infrared panels to tell which panel is functioning or not.”
Many solar panels convert the sun’s rays into electricity rather than heat. However, if a panel is busted, it gets far hotter than its neighbors, which causes it to stick out to an infrared sensor on a drone.
“When a panel is not working, it is absorbing all the sunlight which means its temperature will increase and increase and increase,” Johal said. “We can very precisely tell which panel isn’t producing because modules that aren’t working will be hotter because they’re absorbing the energy, not passing it through.”
Johal noted that, unsurprisingly, older plants tended to have the most malfunctions — but even new plants have their issues.
“As the asset gets old, you will end up having more defects and failures,” Johal said. “When a new plant is installed its not uncommong for wiring to be hooked up incorrectly. That’s why a plant owner or operators often have us inspect the plants during the first year. Just to make sure everything was done correctly.”
One of the reasons so many solar panels get installed broken is because many of them are made in China. Stiff competition from heavily subsidized Chinese-made solar panels is hurting U.S. solar panel makers and the environment, according to a December report by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The Chinese government offered solar companies lucrative tax incentives and subsidies in addition to a low-wage, but relatively skilled workforce. The country spent more than $80 billion subsidizing new green energy in 2014 alone, while the US spent a “mere” $34 billion. These subsidies created a glut of solar panels globally, which cut into the profit margins of non-Chinese solar companies.
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