Clean energy pundits vouch that solar power will eventually leave its dirtier counterpart — coal — in the dust. 

But as it stands, dust is the solar industry’s biggest enemy.

Urbanization, industrialization, and industrial emissions have resulted in rising levels of fine particle air pollution worldwide. In 2017, 92% of the world’s population, mostly concentrated in Africa and Asia, lived in areas that exceeded the World Health Organization’s guidelines for particulate matter.

This same particulate matter presents serious limitations to the growth of solar energy because, well, dirty solar panels let in less light and produce less electricity than clean ones. Air pollution and dust cut solar cell output in India, China and other parts of the world by as much as 25%, said Manish Kumar Das, who helped start Skilancer Solar in India to fight the problem.

The two Asian countries in particular accounted for almost 40% percent of total global photovoltaic capacity in 2018.

The Skilancer Solution

While dust and air pollution hurts optimal production of solar power, so too does human intervention by cleaning. The friction caused by human cleaning together with the use of incorrect technique or chemicals can sometimes permanently damage a panel. 

Skilancer’s solution? A centrally controlled, self-powered, robot for automatic cleaning of solar panels that Kumar Das dubs “a blend of cleantech maintenance, robotics and elements of artificial intelligence.” The patent-pending robot eliminates human operating error and water dependency. It also offers users real-time information on the robot’s cleaning activity and panel performance.

“Our robot is equipped with intelligence to sense climate conditions and any fluctuations in panel power production and operate optimally in response,” explains Kumar Das. When it rains, the robot will not operate since the rainfall will have cleaned the panels anyway. Similarly if the wind speed is beyond a set limit, typically 54 kilometers an hour, then it will not operate so as to protect the panels and the robot from damage.  

Capitalizing on India’s Solar Growth Story

The brainchild of mechanical engineer Neeraj Kumar, Skilancer was conceived as part of his college project at the Indian Institute of Technology in Jodhpur. 

In 2014, he met Kumar Das and both were consumed by the device’s possibilities. It was still early days in India’s nascent renewables scene, a good year before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to make his landmark announcement of the country’s ambitious target of producing 175GW of power from renewable sources by 2022.

Earlier iterations of the product benefited from a collaboration with the mechanical engineering department at Amity University, under the mentorship of department head Basant Singh Sikarwar. 

“We knew this idea was going to be capital intensive, not just monetarily, but we also needed intellectual and infrastructural capital,” recalls Kumar Das. The partnership enabled the duo to recruit students to work on the device and granted access to the institution’s R&D facilities. 

Adapting to An Emerging Cleantech Market

The biggest obstacle to Skilancer’s growth continues to be a lack of consumer awareness.

“Solar panels were a new concept for the Indian market, one that was met with a lot of skepticism,” said Kumar Das, who recalled securing their first customer only after promising to replace his solar panels for free in return for conducting a six- month pilot. “Add to that the notion that a robot could clean a solar panel and it was something entirely foreign for the average Indian consumer.”

 By the end of 2017, after only a few months of sales, they had moved only five devices.

A meeting with Indian angel investor and founder of Alfa Ventures, Dhianu Das, proved pivotal for Skilancer. He invested $100,000 in a seed round in 2018 and worked closely with the co-founders to refine their go-to-market strategy. By the summer of 2018, Skilancer broke even and by the end of that year had boosted sales more than 25 times. Since then the numbers have been climbing rapidly.

Priced at $2,150 per unit, the device presents a “marginal cost that is just 2% of the total cost of erecting a standard solar installation” according to Das and promises impressive durability. “The structure is primarily aluminum so it can last for up to 25 years and the team conducts routine annual maintenance checks, where they check a number of elements and change the device’s wheels,” he explains.

The Impact of Climate Change on Cleantech

While much of the public narrative surrounding solar power purely touts its future promise, very little consumer awareness is conducted on the importance of effective cleaning of photovoltaic panels, he explains.

A 2017 study, led by Michael Bergin, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University, revealed that the accumulation of airborne particles on solar panels reduces energy output by more than 25%. The study also indicated a 50% increase in efficiency each time solar panels were cleaned after allowing dust to accumulate for several weeks. 

It’s an opportunity that spawned the massive growth of an entirely adjacent market to photovoltaic (PV) panels, that of solar panel cleaning systems, valued at approximately $2 billion in India and $23 billion globally. Between 2018 and 2026, the PV cleaning market is estimated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7.5% according to a recent Credence Research report.

Kumar Das explains that dust is a major problem globally, to varying degrees,but especially in the Middle East, particularly the southeastern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. A WHO study showed that 50% of the region’s air pollution was from natural sources, mainly dust and sea-salt particles. 

The Duke study indicated that in the Arabian peninsula, about 84 per cent of the loss of energy identified was due to dust, with the average annual decrease in solar cell output due to fine dust deposits at about 12%. However, during and after a sandstorm, energy yield is decreased by about 60%.

In India and China, air pollution presents a significant and steadily growing problem. Yet power losses due to air pollution are not readily understood even though they play a major role when it comes to investing in or maintaining a long-term solar system. In India’s capital, Delhi, it means a loss of up to $20 million annually, losses of $10 million for both Shanghai and Beijing, and a loss between $6 and $9 million for Los Angeles.

Leading Local, Going Global

In late May 2019, Alfa Ventures concluded a follow-on funding round for an undisclosed sum. Das is bullish about the scalability of solar startups, although it’s a view held by a select group of investors and venture capitalists. 

Arun Diaz, an advisor to impact-investing fund Aavishkaar and most recently an angel investor in Zunroof – an online marketplace for solar systems – explains that the Indian renewables sector in general is still heavily influenced by the government. “India’s solar story remains sensitive to government subsidies, tariffs and policies which present additional risks that few venture capitalists are willing or qualified to stomach,” says Diaz.

For now, Alfa Ventures’ investment is earmarked for three specific developments: product design and technology upgrades, recruiting talent and expanding into new geographies namely Africa, Indonesia and the Middle East. 

In India, which is already seeing strong competition in the PV cleaning from homegrown solutions like Solabot and Nocca and global players such as Japan’s Miraikikai and China’s Sol-Bright, Skilancer plans a series of upgrades including increased cleaning speed, power saving by reducing the weight of the robot and doubling the distance covered in a single cleaning (currently 2.1 km).

Partnerships with state governments are also underway with Skilancer signing a memorandum of understanding with the government of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh for the provision of robots. India’s largest independent solar power producer, Acme Solar, has purchased 160 robots. 

The team’s first foray abroad will be arid regions such as Africa and the Middle East. “We have a paid pilot lined up in Dubai, which will help us better understand the geographic conditions and use cases so we can customize the device to this market,” shares Kumar Das. 

What about China, the world’s leader in solar power output? “China has a monopoly on manufacturing and a number of strong homegrown players, so we have no intention of expanding into saturated territory,” he explains.