How robots could dramatically speed up solar farm construction

A number of companies are now using automation and AI to expedite utility-scale solar installations, ease labor shortages and protect workers from unsafe conditions.
By Eric Wesoff

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A large green robotic machine
Built Robotics' pile driver (Built Robotics)

The staggering amount of utility-scale solar that must be built in the coming decade to meet net-zero targets is going to require new construction methods that make use of robots and automation.

In 2022, about 12 gigawatts of utility-scale solar capacity was installed in the U.S., according to the Solar Energy Industries Association — but 358 gigawatts of new solar capacity is expected to be deployed between 2023 and 2030, driven by the incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act, according to the latest New Energy Outlook from BloombergNEF.

Annual installations could expand to more than 100 gigawatts per year by 2030, according to some projections.

If we’re going to build 100 gigawatts of solar a year, we just don’t have enough humans or time to get that done,” said Gregg Wallace, a partner at venture capital firm Building Ventures. We need superhuman speed, but there are simply not enough workers for the level of renewable energy buildout we need to meet our own promised goals and to keep up with China,” he said.

That’s one of the reasons that Wallace’s firm invested in San Francisco–based Built Robotics, a startup that uses robots in construction projects and utility-scale solar installations. Built’s trenching robots have already helped install more than 2 gigawatts of solar capacity across the country, according to the company.

When we first started working on solar projects, we were putting in trenching for [alternating-current] and [direct-current] lines, but we found that there was a lot more that could be automated, because a solar farm is a very consistent building environment,” said Erol Ahmed, director of communications at Built Robotics. You’re placing consistent panels at consistent intervals on a consistent grid. It lends itself well to what autonomy can do today.”

The structural foundation of a large solar farm is built by driving tens of thousands of heavy steel beams into the soil, each of which must be accurately pounded into the ground at depths of up to eight feet. It’s a construction step at the core of almost every large solar project (with the exception of Erthos’ ground-mounted solar panels).

Built Robotics aims to use one integrated machine for all the steps of this process: surveying, pile distribution, pile-driving and inspection. The company claims that solar foundations can be constructed three to five times faster with its system than with traditional methods. Watch a video of the machine at work below.

Built leases a kit that adds autonomous robotic capabilities to existing construction equipment with a combination of cameras, GPS and artificial intelligence. This robotic platform can be installed on machinery from Caterpillar, Hitachi, John Deere and Volvo as an aftermarket upgrade, according to the company.

Built Robotics has raised a total of $112 million from investors including Building Ventures, Founders Fund, Fifth Wall, Lemnos, New Enterprise Associates, Next47, Presidio Ventures, Tiger Global and Valia Ventures.

Another way to automate the construction of solar foundations

While Built Robotics is automating the standard pile-based solar architecture, Ojjo is automating a very different system for laying the foundations used in utility-scale solar.

As Canary Media’s Julian Spector reported last year, the company replaces conventional pile-driven foundations with a less material-intensive scheme:

A custom-built machine drills hollow screws into the ground at precise angles. Then installers slide steel pipes in to make a triangular truss. Once a row of these is erected, they can connect with and support solar trackers from familiar brands like Array Technologies and Nextracker.

Ojjo’s truss-driver system is a highly automated, sensor-laden, real-time, decision-making machine that’s detecting subsurface conditions and dynamically adjusting to them, and all this is happening without operator intervention,” Ojjo CEO Mike Miskovsky told Canary last week.

A traditional pile-driving operation requires drilling, driving and remediation steps that typically call for three separate crews and three separate machines. Ojjo claims that its automated, AI-driven machine can take care of all three tasks.

We’re bending the curve for what can get installed in a given unit of time,” said Miskovsky. We have to if we’re going to deploy at this unimaginable scale.” The CEO said his company’s system can halve the need for human labor on foundation work while also halving the amount of steel used.

Ojjo has already deployed its truss system at the 284-megawatt Eagle Shadow Mountain project in Clark County, Nevada and is currently installing the foundation for Gemini, one of the largest solar projects now being built in the U.S.

The company closed a $40 million Series C funding round in 2022 after raising $27 million over two previous rounds from investors including Ajax Strategies, Cthulhu Ventures and NGP.

Automating the assembly and installation of solar panels 

While Ojjo and Built Robotics are automating the construction of solar farms’ foundations, Terabase Energy is automating the installation of solar panels.

Terabase’s approach is to deploy a temporary factory” at the solar-farm construction site, where workers on an assembly line oversee robotic equipment that unpacks pallets of solar modules and puts them together into module sub-assemblies. Partnering with panel maker First Solar, Terabase wants its field factory to act as an extension of the module factory. Delivery rovers then transport the panels to their rightful places in the sun and connect them to the broader array.

With this system, Terabase is looking to double installation productivity compared to traditional methods. Here’s a 2022 video of the beta version of the company’s assembly process; it’s been further refined since then.

Terabase is partnering with project developer Intersect Power, tracker builder Nextracker, and engineering, procurement and construction firm Signal Energy to deploy its automated process on several projects that will start later this year.

Utility-scale solar is more manufacturing than construction, with tens of thousands of identical units. It’s not complex like a dam. It’s just big,” Matt Campbell, CEO of Terabase, told Canary Media in 2021. It needs to be managed like row-crop farming and more of a modern, integrated supply chain.”

Terabase’s system enables a whole new tranche of industrial engineering,” Campbell said in an interview this week.

Terabase announced a $44 million Series B funding round last year from investors including Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Prelude Ventures and SJF Ventures, bringing the startup’s total funding to $52 million.

Other vendors automating the construction of solar farms include Sarcos and AES. Both companies deploy specialized vehicles with robotic arms to automate module transportation and installation. Watch AES’ Atlas solar robot at work below.

Automation could solve the labor shortage

Solar industry employment will more than double from 255,000 today to 538,000 by 2032, and solar manufacturing jobs will grow to over 100,000 by 2032, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. But 89 percent of solar firms in the U.S. reported difficulty finding qualified applicants in 2021, especially for installation work, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

Terabase’s Campbell sees automation as a way to alleviate the solar industry’s unprecedented labor shortages” as well as improve worker health and safety.

Terabase eliminates the physical safety risk of construction workers needing to lift heavy solar panels and steel structures by utilizing automation on a climate-controlled assembly line. It makes the workers’ jobs much easier and makes them much more productive,” said Campbell.

Panels have gotten way bigger in the last two years, pushing the limits of what people should really be carrying,” he said. Working conditions at a large solar farm in the desert are an unaddressed topic in the industry because it’s 100-and-some degrees and it’s dusty. There are snakes, and the turnover is horrible. People are like, The heck with this. I’ll go work at an Amazon distribution center.’ There are not enough good workers, and it’s hard to retain the good workers. So we make the job much better. We also make it so anybody can do it — you don’t have to be a big guy. You could be a small person; you could be an older person.”

Automation, even in areas where labor costs are relatively low, can help address not just worker retention and safety, but also product quality and consistency. You can’t just focus on the labor costs,” said Campbell. The cost of poor quality is really high — these are 40-year assets.”

After a decade of consistent price drops, the cost of building a utility-scale solar system started to rise in the first quarter of 2022 because of supply-chain issues, the Auxin tariff-circumvention investigation, repercussions of the pandemic, and the global energy impact of the war in Ukraine.

Adopting automation, robotics and AI in large solar projects can get the industry back on its cost-reduction path and open up installation jobs to a wider set of employees. There’s room for improvement in this critical renewable energy sector.

We’re still at the dawn of the innovation cycle and the learning curve in utility-scale solar,” said Ojjo’s Miskovsky. 

Eric Wesoff is the executive director at Canary Media.