The CleanFleet robot, a propriety technology of Davis-based Greenbotics, washes a row of dusty solar panels at a SunPower Oasis solar power plant in Yolo County. Courtesy photo


Solar panels to shine, thanks to Davis company

By From page A11 | November 24, 2013

A solution for cleaning solar panels — developed by a Davis-based engineering team, Greenbotics — is now under the umbrella of one of the country’s leading solar panel providers.

Greenbotics was acquired by SunPower on Nov. 4, two years after it was founded by three engineers: Marc Grossman, Cedric Jeanty and Kyle Cobb. Together, they developed a robot — dubbed CleanFleet — for automated and efficient cleaning of solar panels on a large scale.

Being the country’s second-largest manufacturer of solar energy equipment, SunPower found good use for the CleanFleet machine. The Bay Area-based company intends to use the robots for an expected increase in annual energy production of up to 15 percent at its customers’ solar power plants.

“(The acquisition) was motivated by the experience that we’ve had with our large-scale systems throughout the state,” said SunPower CEO Tom Werner. “We were seeking a more cost-effective solution for our customers.”

Cleaning a solar panel can make a big difference in its performance, he explained, especially when SunPower’s CEO speaks in terms of square miles when it comes to large utility-scale solar panel farms.

And, he adds, the large swath of panels that his company develops may need cleaning two or three times a year. Dirt and dust that build up on the ground-mounted systems can significant lower a solar panel’s efficiency.

That’s especially pertinent in certain desert-like environments, such as states in America’s West, the Middle East or Chile, just a few of the places where SunPower is installing systems.

The conventional method of cleaning solar panels is to hose them down with pressure washers and sprayer trucks. The solution Greenbotics found, using its CleanFleet, requires less than half a cup of water per panel. This amounts to 90 percent less than the normal techniques.

SunPower began employing the local technology earlier this year, and found it to be half the cost of its prior cleaning processes. Besides that, Werner claims the robots got the job done in less time.

“We had empirical data that it worked,” Werner said. “They’re one of the few companies that had a working solution. That caused us to think about making an acquisition, so that we could have the technology ourselves.”

The exact terms of SunPower’s acquisition of Greenbotics, which is headquartered in an office at 235 Seventh St. in Davis, were not disclosed.

Grossman, Jeanty and Cobb — Greenbotics’ founders — have over the years recruited the help of three other engineers for the development of their robot, including a UC Davis graduate.

As to whether the Greenbotics team and its local facility might see an expansion post-acquisition, that’s something Werner said is still unclear at this time.

“We have sites all over the world, so just scaling to the level we need probably will require some growth,” he said. “We think there’s other applications for the team, other things that they can do with the core technology.”

One thing Werner did make clear is that the Greenbotics engineers would remain rooted in Davis, where they want to be.

“They love Davis, and didn’t want to leave,” he said. “We’re in Richmond, so really only about an hour’s drive apart. We’re able to leave a great entrepreneurial team where they’re comfortable.”

— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett

Brett Johnson

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