Heightened renewable energy ambitions in the U.S. created a surge in demand for solar projects around the country, but labor might be unable to keep up. With the Inflation Reduction Act paving the way for an increase in solar installation velocity, the industry needs to address more than just delivery modules, hardware, and software. The sheer human resources needed to deploy this increased demand will require revolutionary thinking and the industry to work differently.
According to estimates, the solar sector will need to reach 400,000 jobs by 2030 and more than double by 2035 to meet climate goals set last year.
How can solar project developers meet higher demands while keeping projects on track? And how can the solar industry train thousands of skilled workers and get them up-to-speed and ready to work?
One answer is robotics. The role of robotics is more important than ever amid the workforce limitations in the solar industry. New technology will play a critical role in developing utility-scale solar projects to help meet energy goals in the U.S.
Deploying robotics technology enables the industry to achieve ambitious solar deployment goals because it makes solar construction more efficient while shortening operator training times. From shipping and packing methods and transportation to installation, robotics provides a way to shrink the labor and time needed to deploy utility-scale solar.
Solar & Robotics Technology and Process
Many companies are already looking to crack the robotics code in utility-scale solar. One company, Sarcos Technology and Robotics Corporation (Sarcos), uses technology that provides intelligent mobile manipulation systems for complex and often dangerous outdoor environments, making the role of robotic applications helpful in improving safety, productivity, and efficiency.
Sarcos’ robotics have been applied in the aviation, defense, energy, and medical industries. The company uses robotic arms, human-directed controllers, robotic systems, and advanced autonomy software (artificial intelligence) “to develop robotic systems that empower humans to do their jobs safely and efficiently.”
Applying Robotics Expertise to the Solar Industry
The use of ‘supervised autonomy’ provides safer roles for human operators by delegating dangerous tasks to the robot. When riskier jobs are assumed by human-controlled mechanical arms in applications like solar construction, it can shorten project timelines while reducing accidents and injuries.
Solar modules are large pieces of fragile equipment that require significant manual labor hours to deliver and install. With solar modules trending upward in size, they’ll only get heavier and trickier to handle.
Large solar sites are generally in remote areas like deserts or mountainsides. These locations are great for solar projects but can be demanding on manual laborers, especially in harsh environmental conditions. Adding robotics to the solar construction industry can make project installation safer and quicker.
Using a $1.9 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO), Array Technologies and Sarcos have collaborated to implement robotics into solar projects across the country. The program aims to develop a robotic system for the Outdoor Autonomous Manipulation of Photovoltaic Panels (O-AMPP). In addition to Array and Sarcos, the collaboration includes JLG Industries, Mortenson, and Pratt Miller.
Sarcos will use computer vision and machine learning with its autonomous robotic technology to deliver, manipulate, and install solar modules in challenging locations. By buffering the dangerous aspects of solar module maneuvering and installation, these smart robotic arms are creating processes to move solar equipment faster and build sites with fewer errors.
Array will supply the tracker technology, and our engineers will collaborate with teams from contributing companies. By helping the development of this technology, Array has the potential to play a vital role in changing the face of the solar industry through entirely new workflows and implementations.
How Robotics Can Help the U.S. Achieve Carbon-free Energy Goals
The increase in efficiency and safety associated with robotics has the potential to enable solar project developers to ramp up production to the levels we need to hit to achieve the DOE’s 2035 and 2050 energy goals. These goals call for 95% decarbonization by 2035 and 100% decarbonization by 2050.
Solar would need to account for 45% of electricity generation to achieve these levels by 2050. The Solar Energy Industry Association estimates that solar installations must increase by 60% above current forecasts between 2022 and 2030 to meet these climate targets.
According to the 2020 National Solar Jobs Census by the SEIA, The Solar Foundation, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), and BW Research, the industry is facing significant workforce limitations.
This widespread industry labor shortage was brought on partly by workforce training and mobilization lags caused mainly by the pandemic. Just as training for skilled workers in solar began to ramp up, most of the world was put on hold.
Despite these challenges, demand for solar energy has only increased. This is a good thing, but logistically there are not enough people trained and ready to meet the demand. Robotics opens opportunities for people to learn skills around supervising these operations.
Robotics’ Role in Ramping Up Solar Despite a Labor Shortage
Given the limitations of a tight labor market and a labor-intensive installation process, robotic automation is expected to be a critical force multiplier in the global effort to increase the development of solar energy projects. Developing and refining robotic construction capabilities is essential for boosting solar deployment that’s also safer for humans. It creates new jobs for skilled laborers, with shorter training timeframes and fewer risks when they start work.
We see collaboration with robotics leaders as one of many essential steps in helping the utility-scale solar industry think in broader terms and realize new productivity levels. All this can make U.S. energy and climate goals a reality—a win for the industry, the U.S. climate, and the world.Click here for other articles by this author