Automated Solar Panel Cleaning; Keeping Solar Power Clean

Davis, Christopher, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Momot, Michael, EN-Mech & Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Solar power resides on the forefront of the renewable energy market, but may not be as
clean as it seems at first. The technical and STS research papers delve into the ways in which
solar panel technology can be made cleaner and more efficient. The technical research paper,
automation of solar panel cleaning, explores a robotic solar panel cleaning system. This system
aims to decrease the loss of solar energy from debris residing on active solar panels. The STS
research paper explores how the solid waste from end of life solar panels impacts the
environment. It looks into recycling policies of different countries, as well as existing recycling
infrastructure, and analyzes the ways in which they can be improved. The technical research
paper and STS research paper both attempt to improve the efficiency and environmental impact
of the solar panel market.
The main downside to solar energy is that it is dependent on unrestricted access to
sunlight. Beyond just weather, the buildup of debris, primarily dust, can decrease the efficiency
of solar panels by restricting their access to light. This inefficiency can be rectified by regular
cleaning of the solar panels, but for solar farms with thousands of panels, hiring workers to clean
the panels can be very expensive. The technical project seeks to curb this by creating an
automated solar power cleaner that could wipe solar panels clean with limited human
supervision. The technical team created a product that pulls a wiper blade across a solar panel
using a winch working against negator springs.
The final product created by the technical team was a success. The automated
solar panel cleaner was able to move a wiper blade across a solar panel and effectively wipe dust
from it, as well as other larger debris. However, the solar panel cleaner did struggle with
cleaning debris that was stuck or crusted onto the surface of the panel. Going forward several
changes could be made to make the system more effective. The motor used in the product was
needlessly high torque, and a lower torque higher speed motor could have done the same job at a
much lower cost. In addition, implementing water into the solar panel cleaning system would
help to increase its cleaning ability. Finally, constructing elements of the cleaner from plastic
instead of wood would increase its durability.
The STS research paper went into exploring how solar panels were dealt with after they
reached their end of life state. Like all electrical products, solar panels eventually lose their
efficiency and become solid waste. The STS research paper aims to look at ways the recycling of
solar panels can be incentivized on an international level using the handoff model and actor
network theory. To achieve this the current solar panel recycling processes and infrastructure, as
well as solar panel recycling legislation on an international level are analyzed using the handoff
model and actor network theory.
The recycling of end of life solar panels can be encouraged in a number of ways.
Requiring the manufacturers of the solar panels to oversee the end of life recycling of the panels
simplifies the recycling process and allows the manufacturers to include the cost of the panels
into their initial cost. An international agreement similar to the 2015 Paris Accords would help to
set an international precedent for recycling solar panels. Finally regulating the materials used in
the manufacturing process of the panels, as well as providing funding for research into recycling
processes will help to lessen the environmental impact of end of life solar panels.
While the solar energy industry provides a lower environmental impact then many other
forms of energy production, it is still far from perfect. However, through the implementation of
automated solar panel cleaners as well as improved end of life solar panel recycling, solar power
could easily be the energy of the future.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Handoff model, Actor Network Theory, Solar Panel, Photovoltaic, Solid Waste, Cleaning

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Michael Momot
STS Advisor: Catherine Baritaud
Technical Team Members: Christopher Davis, Derek Habron, Matthew Kim, Christopher Le, Nicole Piatko

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