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So Much For Jobs? Startup Builds Solar Robot Workers

Alion's robots don't look like this, but that would be pretty cool. | Photo: iwouldificould/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A key argument developers have used in favor of large desert solar projects has been that such projects will bring jobs to remote, underemployed communities. That argument might just fall out of favor if a Bay Area startup has its way. Richmond-based Alion Energy is proposing to automate both construction and maintenance of large solar facilities, using robots instead of skilled workers to put solar panels in place and keep them clean.

The firm, profiled Monday in the New York Times, claims its solar-worker robots will be able to reduce both installation and maintenance costs for utility-scale solar facilities. That isn't just by eliminating the need for union-scale paychecks, but also by accelerating the pace of construction so that companies can start selling power sooner.

Large-scale solar developers routinely tout the number of jobs their projects will provide. First Solar's Desert Sunlight project in Riverside County, for instance, boasts 440 construction jobs over 26 months of planned construction. NextEra Energy Resources says its Blythe and McCoy solar projects would each provide about 600 jobs during their construction phases, and BrightSource Energy and Abengoa estimate their Palen Solar Electric Generating System will require about 2,000 construction workers.

According to Alion's website the company forecasts its robots will allow developers to cut their construction crews by 75 percent. That's quite likely an optimistic estimate. Still, such tech would very likely reduce local job benefits dramatically, with developers sending their trained robot wranglers from site to site rather than hiring local skilled labor.

Energy consultant Vishal Sapru from the business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan waxed enthusiastic about Alion's tech in an interview with the Times. "You reduce the number of days. You reduce the number of laborers. You reduce the number of inefficiencies that could arise in putting up these panels, and then it results in a huge cost savings."

Alion's prototype solar panel maintenance robot, nicknamed "Spot," rolls along a track attached to rows of panels. One attachment wets and squeegees panels to clean them, while another trims any vegetation that starts encroaching on the panels' access to sunlight. (ReWire assumes that identifying wildlife species of concern and alerting project biologists doesn't fall within Spot's job description, but who knows?)

There will certainly be a number of places where Alion's technology makes sense, as for example solar projects in converted "brownfields" where limiting worker exposure to residual toxic substances is a manifestly good idea.

In the meantime, it may be that Alion and companies like it merely deepen the rhetorical divide between utility-scale and rooftop solar, which already has a much higher jobs-to-kilowatts ration than utility-scale solar. At least, that is, until someone develops a robot that can seamlessly adjust to the near-unlimited kinds of roofs on which human workers install solar panels every single day without having to be reprogrammed.

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