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Automating utility-scale solar vegetation management can increase profitability

Vegetation management at utility-scale solar power plants has always been a growing problem, especially seasonally (yes, pun intended). But with the evolution of AI technology, solar site management can be largely hands-off.

Challenges of vegetation management

Solar plants have two primary stakeholders: asset owners and O&M providers. Asset owners typically have power purchase agreements in place for long-term profitability, so they need to control costs while keeping the facility maintained in quality condition. Steady costs mean higher profitability.

O&M providers, on the other hand, must manage cost and labor for maintenance and provide a quality service in order to keep the contract with the asset owner.

Since O&M providers are typically well-trained technicians who support electrical repairs and modifications to solar facilities, it is very challenging to find and keep low-cost labor for the dangerous, dirty and exhausting work of mowing and grooming the grounds. To keep costs down on vegetation management, it may be seasonal employees or outsourced landscaping companies doing the work.

The often remote locations of solar projects also factor into the cost of vegetation control. Landscapers may have to drive considerable distances since large solar projects are located outside major cities or urban areas. The distance adds to expense, time, carbon emissions and difficulty finding and maintaining qualified help.

Operating lawnmowers and other landscaping gear within a solar project can also be dangerous. There’s a vast range of high voltage running through these projects, so workers must assume any component in the system could be energized. Crews have to undergo training and, in some instances, wear full-body safety gear and face masks in hot and humid weather.

Vegetation management solutions

An automated vegetation management system that is repetitive and reliable is a great solution for controlling costs for both asset owners and O&M providers. One such option is the Renubot, an autonomous mower that uses GPS with real-time kinematic (RTK) correction so it’s accurate within 2 cm and equipped with lidar to map the site. The Renubot is also completely electric.

Turning to an all-electric autonomous mower increases mowing time and decreases carbon emissions from fuel use. It may seem like small advantages, but those cost savings add up on large-scale sites. And there are fewer outsourced landscapers needed to maintain the landscape. In Renubot’s case, the system can be accessed by computer, phone or tablet and monitored during hands-off operation.

The future of utility-scale solar O&M

Looking ahead, Renu is working on an automated inspection system that can spray for weeds; locate and repair or replace failed or damaged panels, loose wiring or hardware; and perform a litany of other repairs. Another possibility is security robots running along the perimeter of a project’s fence line.

Automating many utility-scale solar project maintenance functions can allow O&M technicians to detect failures before they happen. Automation will not only play a role in keeping costs down but will also drive higher revenue when solar plants are operating at peak output performance.

Utility-scale solar facilities will always need to be maintained. To keep facilities operating at peak performance, O&M providers will continue with vegetation management, repairs, replacements and cleaning. Renu Robotics sees a future where automation makes the process of maintaining large facilities easier and less expensive.

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