CANBERRA, AAP – Already making blocks of panels that roll out like a solar accordion, engineers at 5B say robots can build the world’s solar farms even faster, safely and at lower cost.
The company says its flagship product, the prefabricated and portable “Maverick”, can already deploy up to 10 times faster and generate up to twice the energy using the same amount of land as conventional solar.
The new Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Line automated production system will use two-thirds of a $33.4 million investment in new technology announced on Tuesday.
The rest will be used to develop the robotics for GPS-guided deployment of massive solar arrays.
Chief operating officer Nicole Kuepper-Russell said 5B’s co-founders Chris McGrath and Eden Tehan share her ambition for Australia to be a “clean tech powerhouse”.
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“No matter what side of politics you’re on, we’re talking about the next industrial revolution,” she said.
The company is named after the five billion years of sunshine we have left.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the robotic system is a “game changer” in the industry.
5B’s target is a steep reduction in the overall capital cost of a Maverick array, with a 35 per cent cost reduction by 2023 and a 70 per cent cost reduction forecast by 2030, to 30 cents per watt.
“I’m a solar nerd from way, way, way back,” Dr Kuepper-Russell told AAP.
She studied with renowned University of New South Wales professor the late Stuart Wehham, who also taught Suntech founder Shi Zhengrong.
Starting with a solar car kit from her parents when she turned eight, the engineer and former consultant is now part of efforts to further reduce the cost of utility-scale solar.
5B has grown from 30 employees to 200 in the past 18 months, with the Maverick now installed in Australia, the United States, Latin America and India.
A $14 million grant is being provided by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which has a track record of picking winners for almost 10 years.
“The world needs massive scale, ultra low-cost solar power fast and this funding will accelerate the delivery of that,” Dr Kuepper-Russell said.
“We have 32 megawatts on the ground and lots in production, and a really healthy order book.”
The federal grant contributes to the redesign of the existing manual assembly line and the pilot for artificial intelligence-enabled solar installation.
“Today it is still, to a degree, manual. It takes two people about a day to assemble a Maverick block, or unit,” Dr Kuepper-Russell said.
The advanced manufacturing line will make 40 a day.
When in the field, a forklift and three people can roll out the array very quickly but the manual work to align can be eliminated with GPS-guided robotics.
ARENA last year set the new target of “Solar 30 30 30” to improve solar efficiency to 30 per cent and reduce the cost of solar to 30 cents a watt, installed by 2030.