Robots and automation are revolutionizing the construction of solar farms, offering a solution to expedite the installation process, address labor shortages, and enhance worker safety. With the immense amount of utility-scale solar capacity required to meet net-zero targets, new construction methods incorporating robotics and automation have become essential.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, approximately 12 gigawatts of utility-scale solar capacity was installed in the United States in 2022. However, between 2023 and 2030, an estimated 358 gigawatts of new solar capacity is expected to be deployed, driven by incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act. Some projections suggest that annual installations could reach over 100 gigawatts by 2030.
Venture capital firm Building Ventures partner Gregg Wallace highlights the challenge posed by the need to build 100 gigawatts of solar capacity annually. He emphasizes the scarcity of human resources and time required to achieve such a scale, especially when compared to China’s progress. To address this issue, Building Ventures invested in Built Robotics, a San Francisco-based startup utilizing robots for construction projects and utility-scale solar installations. Built Robotics has already installed over 2 gigawatts of solar capacity across the country using its trenching robots. The automation of processes such as trenching, driven by the consistent and predictable nature of solar farm construction, allows for significant time savings compared to traditional methods.
Built Robotics offers an integrated machine that performs all the necessary steps for constructing solar foundations, including surveying, pile distribution, pile-driving, and inspection. The company claims that its system can construct solar foundations three to five times faster than conventional methods. Built Robotics provides a kit that adds autonomous robotic capabilities to existing construction equipment, allowing it to operate on machinery from various manufacturers.
Another company, Ojjo, automates a different aspect of solar farm construction—the laying of foundations. By replacing conventional pile-driven foundations with a less material-intensive system, Ojjo improves efficiency and reduces the need for human labor. Ojjo’s automated machine drills hollow screws into the ground at precise angles and erects steel pipes to create a triangular truss structure. The process eliminates the need for separate crews and machines for drilling, driving, and remediation. Ojjo’s system, equipped with sensors and artificial intelligence, adapts to subsurface conditions and adjusts accordingly. This automation significantly increases installation rates and reduces steel usage. Ojjo has successfully implemented its truss system at the 284-megawatt Eagle Shadow Mountain project in Nevada and is currently installing foundations for Gemini, one of the largest ongoing solar projects in the United States.
Terabase Energy focuses on automating the installation of solar panels by deploying a temporary “factory” on the construction site. Workers oversee robotic equipment that assembles solar modules into sub-assemblies, which are then transported and connected to the larger array. Terabase aims to double installation productivity compared to traditional methods. The company has partnered with project developer Intersect Power, tracker builder Nextracker, and engineering, procurement, and construction firm Signal Energy to implement its automated process on upcoming projects.
Automation not only addresses the labor shortage in the solar industry but also improves worker health and safety. By automating tasks that involve heavy lifting and working in extreme conditions, companies like Terabase reduce physical safety risks for construction workers. The solar industry’s labor shortages, reported by 89% of solar firms in the United States, particularly in installation work, can be alleviated through automation.
Apart from addressing labor challenges, automation enhances product quality and consistency while reducing costs. The use of robots and AI in large-scale solar projects helps the industry maintain a cost-reduction trajectory and enables a wider range of employees to participate in installation jobs. As the utility-scale solar sector continues to evolve, there is significant potential for innovation and improvement.
Overall, robots and automation are transforming solar farm construction, offering accelerated installation rates, increased worker safety, and improved efficiency, thus playing a vital role in meeting renewable energy targets.