Robotic cleaning has gained immense popularity in India due to acute shortage of suitable water for manual cleaning at most sites, lower cost and gains in power yield. To understand key trends in this market, BRIDGE TO INDIA spoke with Mr. Nalin Kumar Sharma, President – Asia, Middle East and Pacific at Ecoppia, a leading robotic cleaning technology provider. Our conversation focused on key issues such as market drivers, evolving market trends, technological improvements, benefits for project developers, reliability and competitive landscape. Here are some edited excerpts from the conversation:
1. What is the acceptance of robotic cleaning in India and how has it trended over time? Which regions, client segments and business segments are top adopters?India has witnessed a tremendous growth in robotic cleaning since Ecoppia first entered the Indian market 6 years ago. The adoption rate is growing exponentially and now over 60% of greenfield projects are designed with robotic cleaning. We see a similar growth trend in brownfield sites with 40% of all brownfield projects expected to switch to robotic cleaning in the next 5 years.If in the past we struggled to explain the concept of robotic cleaning and why manual cleaning is no longer sustainable, these days leading developers fully understand the need for a solution, and carefully analyze elements such as safety, reliability and parts replacement when assessing robotic solutions.
The top states to adopt robotics are as expected Rajasthan, Gujarat and Karnataka, typically for utility scale projects larger than 50MW. What have been the major technology improvements in robotic cleaning?
2. What have been the major technology improvements in robotic cleaning?With nearly a decade’s experience of cleaning billions of panels across the world, Ecoppia technology has constantly evolved according to various changes in the industry.
Scale of sites grew significantly requiring bullet proof communication protocols between all robots, minimal ground leveling and undulating sites required improvements in maneuverability, increasing size of modules enforced robots to clean larger tables and wider rows, and the maturity of the market led developers to think of automation in a greater scope.
Realising these market trends, Ecoppia recently launched its brand new H4 model combining its renowned safety capabilities alongside effective and smart cleaning. The new robot is built with advanced features such as a 4-wheel drive to allow greater maneuverability around difficult structures/ slopes and a super duster mode to cater to severe soiling events. Additionally, this model uses smart sensors to scan and map each row to identify challenging module layouts and adjust travel speed automatically. It is also equipped with artificial intelligence-based weather information, allowing cleaning time to be scheduled depending on weather conditions.
3. Has business case for robotic cleaning improved with increase in cost of manpower and water? What is the usual payback period for original case? Expected output benefit over manual cleaning systems?The business case for robotic cleaning has improved immensely. The IPP’s are designing sites to optimise the number of robots per MWp, significantly increasing coverage area of robots and minizine number of robots per MW. Moreover, larger module sizes translate to higher Wp cleaned, reducing robot costs even more. Supply chain efficiencies and greater economies of scale have also reduced cost per robot.
Another consideration for IPPs is their experience with disruption in manual cleaning during COVID and national lockdown. We see that the IPPs are very keen to make investment in robots to mitigate the risk of non-availability of labor and water. Payback period can be in the range of 1.5-6 years depending on geography, site layout and tariffs.
4. Please comment on system life and reliability of robotic systems. What kind of warranty or after sales support does Ecoppia offer?Our product design life is longer than 25 years. We guarantee a system life of 25 years, linked with a comprehensive annual maintenance contract combining both scheduled and predictive maintenance. Ecoppia works with only tier-1 vendors and our solutions have passed rigorous stress and destruction tests as well as extensive acceleration tests in harsh conditions of Middle East and Indian deserts. Our first projects have already celebrated their 9 year anniversary with robots keeping the same high level of performance and reliability
5. What is the business spread over international markets? How is Make in India helping the company?Ecoppia operates in 4 different continents with over 3,000 MW of installations across the Middle East, LATAM, US and Asia. All Ecoppia robots are manufactured in a state-of-the-art, military grade assembly line in Mohali, Punjab, supporting the “Make in India” initiative. Our manufacturing plant continued full operations with no disruption during COVID lockdown, generating over 150 direct and 500+ indirect jobs.
With its strong local supply chain, state of the art manufacturing facility and an extensive team of 80+ engineers in India, Ecoppia offers Israeli technology with a unique and unmatched Indian local presence.
6. There are many new players from Israel and China offering robotic cleaning systems. How does Ecoppia manage to stay ahead?First and foremost, Ecoppia has proven for nearly a decade that safety and reliability are top priorities. Quality of components from tier-1 vendors, rigorous QA, a military grade assembly line and best in class post sale services with rigorous SLA position Ecoppia ahead of competition. With tens of thousands of robots operating globally, Ecoppia has not seen a single fire instance till date, something which is quite common for other robots, causing severe damage to modules and structure. Our advanced predictive maintenance algorithms allow us to offer the highest availability rate and prevent malfunctions before they happen, showcasing continuous optimal production year-round and operating autonomously.
Our continuous development and improvement activities have resulted in new models introduced to the market every few years, and now after the E4 and T4, Ecoppia presents its newest model – the H4 – powered by patented Helix technology. The H4 offers a faster ROI with minimal infrastructure requirements as it requires no rails, quick deployment and extended cleaning coverage per robot of up to 2 Km. It is designed to provide a holistic solution for even the most challenging solar sites while remaining completely safe for the panels alongside an effective, swift and smart cleaning.
We also understand that the future of O&M goes beyond just automation in cleaning, to convergence with data collection and analysis. Our data platforms collect millions of data points daily serving future applications and add-ons for overall solar site productivity improvements.
7. With many projects now being installed on uneven terrain, what kinds of difficulties are being faced by robotic systems?We are seeing an increasing number of projects with uneven terrain and undulating land. As low tariffs and wafer-thin developer margins do not allow ground leveling, there is a strong need for robotic players to adapt to uneven terrains. Robotic systems are now required to demonstrate higher maneuverability, climb steep slopes without damaging the panel. In addition, we have observed over the last few years cases where the quality of the mounting structure has been compromised – over time ground shifting and misalignment between tables has made it difficult for robotic systems to keep operating smoothly.
All these challenges were considered by us when designing the new H4, offering superb maneuverability while keeping the panels and structure safe with speed adjustment and flexible structure for maximal maneuverability.
8. Are robotic systems compatible with bifacial modules and single axis trackers?We are agnostic to the type of modules or structures used in projects. Ecoppia offers two platforms dedicated to tracker-based projects – the light weighted T4, for all types of trackers and modules and the newly introduced H4, for fixed tilt and tracker-based projects. We have multiple deployments on single axis trackers in the Middle East, LATAM and US including projects with bifacial modules.Read more »
Interview: SGS Group on overcoming bankability and project execution challenges in the Indian solar market/
Dr. Thomas A. Louis is the Global Business Development Manager for Renewable Energy at the SGS Group Management Ltd. He has the following views on successful implementation of solar projects in India:
Public incentive programs as well as private players need independent advisors and contracted third party service providers for support on key decisions
Project developers can improve their bankability through verification by an independent professional services partner
Collaborating with experienced and strong partners can lower the project risk and make project financing terms more favorable
BTI: What potential do you see in the Indian solar market and how is India different from other markets?
TL: We see certain major trends favoring growth in the Indian solar market. First, there is increasing electricity consumption per capita, population growth and hence demand for building new power generation capacity. Second, the levelized cost of electricity generation (LCOE) using solar power, whether using photovoltaic (PV) or concentrating solar thermal technology (CST), continues to decrease rapidly, in line with reductions in the cost of core components and overall system cost. Third, India has high levels of irradiation. A favorable legal framework, large areas of suitable land and vast numbers of technically skilled people can potentially contribute to developing, manufacturing and deploying large numbers of power generation plants in India. This could be both grid-connected and standalone plants over a wide geographic area and using state-of-the-art renewable power generation technologies. However, the Indian solar market is very different from European markets with regards to the ability to finance significant investments, reliability of the transmission and distribution network and the experience of key players. The effective collaboration of all the stakeholders is required in order to design, finance, build and connect significant renewable power generation capacity.
BTI: What module technology is best suited to Indian conditions?
TL: The best technology for a solar power plant depends critically on the specific application and circumstances. In some cases, where the tariff structure is progressive and the ability to generate revenues from electricity sold at peak demand is dominant, CST with thermal storage capability has the ability to match electricity supply to demand. Despite CST’s higher LCOE, it may be more attractive to decision-makers than PV. In the case of ground mounted installations and where the cost of land is low, thin-film PV technology is favored due to its low cost per wattpeak. This is in contrast with the best technology for small, roof-mounted, grid-connected PV installations, dominant in many European countries. In such cases, the cost per m2 and limited space availability favor the use of higher efficiency crystalline silicon PV technology. In addition to the above mentioned considerations (tariff structure, meteorological conditions, availability of land, area related cost) the choice of particular solar power technology that is best for a large country like India will also reflect the future role the country aspires to play in the global supply chain. The question as to what solar power generation technology best meets India’s needs thus cannot be addressed from a single point of view. It all depends on which perspective you take.
BTI: Do you think solar PV plants in India will perform as per expectations?
TL: Whether individual solar power plants perform as per expectations is a matter of professional execution. Whether solar power can make a significant contribution to addressing India’s growing demand for electricity, is a more complex question. The success of public incentive programs designed to stimulate the adoption of solar power technologies is often linked to the generation of jobs in respective industries. Such programs require more than projects being diligently planned and professionally executed. The need is to have independent advisors and contracted third party service providers to support public and private players on key decisions.
BTI: What can project developers do to improve the bankability of their projects in India?
TL: The cost of solar power generated electricity is front-loaded, i.e. determined largely by the cost of the system to be built and the weighted average cost of capital (WACC) used for financing the project. The system cost is determined by the choice of technology, suppliers and project partners and their professional execution. The WACC is determined by the debt to equity ratio and the respective cost of debt and equity. The more experienced and stronger the partners in the project, the lower the project risk and the more attractive project financing terms will be. The ability to secure project financing through loans, with long payback times and low interest rates, in other words bankability, is a key to success in every solar project. Project developers can improve this bankability by subjecting their work to verification by an independent professional services partner. The cost of engaging such a partner, whether by the project’s developer, investor or owner, lender or bank, or EPC contractor, will certainly be offset by the benefits gained in the form of securing attractive project financing swiftly.
BTI: What are the key challenges with regard to project execution in India?
TL: The choice of local partners, the ability to handle administrative processes, to obtain permits and to effectively deal with counterparty risk, are key to successful project execution. This applies everywhere, but specifically in fast growing markets, which often attract new and inexperienced players. This may be the case in emerging solar power markets such as in India. Here, the price sensitivity of the solar power market and its potential for growth not only attract large, experienced and well known players but also those whose willingness to offer the lowest price may not be matched by their ability to deliver and provide guarantees for lasting solutions at the lowest cost. The challenge is for decision makers to distinguish what appears to be a low price from a genuine low cost offer from a partner with a strategically defendable position and resulting cost advantage.Read more »
Mr. Jan-Marc Raitz, Director Commercial Department PV-Projects at IBC SOLAR AG discusses the necessity for adaptation in India. On the scope for further successful growth, Mr. Raitz has the following views:
It is vital to establish a local presence and strengthen EPC capabilities
There is a bright future for MW scale rooftop solar projects
Contract manufacturing partnership with Indian manufacturers allow involvement in projects with local content requirement without any compromise on quality
BTI: Is there a market for turnkey solar solutions in India? What is IBC SOLAR’s strategy for the market?
JR: We are already considering today the Indian PV solar market, beside our German core market, as one of the strongest international markets with a substantial growth for the coming years. We have successfully executed large scale photovoltaic power plants last year under the National Solar Mission Migration Scheme. With these we have proven our competitiveness under demanding market conditions. We intend to continue on this road and strengthen our EPC capabilities by opening our own office in the city of Mumbai within summer 2012. This will give us more flexibility and control over the so-called local content such as civil works, substructures and erection services. Following that, we intend to develop our own MW scale rooftop projects for which we foresee a bright future in the Indian PV market. Such projects shall be fully developed, pre-financed and built under an EPC regime by us before we finally sell them to interested investors, who are seeking projects on a balance sheet financing approach only.
BTI: What has been the performance of your plants in India so far? Have they met your expectations?
JR: Yes, the plants’ performances have exceeded our expectations and the expectations of our clients. Our PV installations are among the top performing plants within all of India with a performance ratio by far above 80%. Additionally, all installations were grid connected in time so that our clients were not facing the danger of losing their initial tariff. Compact and proven design has been one of the key success factors for the overall performance of the systems. All this could be achieved without any compromise on our IBC quality standards and philosophy.
BTI: What has been your experience in adapting the technology and Balance of Systems for projects in India? What are the challenges you have faced?
JR: It was necessary to adapt ourselves to the Indian market environment and to be willing to learn also from our Indian partners and customers, who have kindly guided us on these first projects within the India PV market. It would not have been wise to simply stick to our German approach on project execution. The openness of our partners, customers and our team to learn from each other has been one of the driving success factors. During the final installation phases we were required to send a high number of highly qualified engineers and site managers to India to guarantee that the systems were set-up in a proper manner and then finally guarantee our quality.
BTI: What are the EPC and module price developments that you expect in the months ahead in India?
JR: The prices will be dictated by the market anyway, but as of today we believe in being competitive with a system price of around EUR 1.3/Wp on a turnkey basis for large scale installations. We will be in the position to offer clients a single source solution with product and plant performance guarantees. In addition, these will be backed by first-class bank guarantees. As a result, we expect to be successful in India. Furthermore, we intend to offer operation and maintenance services via our Mumbai offices. This package will provide our customers and their financiers with the required trust to work with IBC SOLAR as one of the leading PV solution providers. Importantly, we have also engaged an Indian cell and module manufacturer for supplying us with IBC crystalline modules that are going to be manufactured in accordance with our specifications and under our quality regime. This partner will undertake contract manufacturing for us. This will help us to be active in projects with local content requirement without any compromise on plant our product quality.
BTI: How important are off-grid, rooftop PV solutions for India? When do you think this segment of the market will take off?
JR: This market segment is still in its early stages, but can already be regarded as the next growth segment. Large scale rooftop installations are especially attractive to us. Nevertheless, such projects will be a bit more complicated in development and execution. Here we believe we will already have the key answers in hand due to our long-lasting experience abroad in this field. Off-grid solutions on a kit basis will also become a standard the next years. Here it will be important to build a good distribution network for being close to the final customer.
View BRIDGE TO INDIA’s insight into the Opportunities and Challenges in India’s Rooftop Solar Energy segment.Read more »
BRIDGE TO INDIA interviewed the Aditya Birla Group for the INDIA SOLAR HANDBOOK for their views on the solar market in India. Mr. Ravi Khanna serves as Chief Executive Officer of the Solar Power Business of the Aditya Birla Group. BRIDGE TO INDIA garners an understanding of the motives, scope and strategies behind its solar incentives.
As a developer in the Indian solar market, the Aditya Birla Group is keen on operating projects under the REC/RPO mechanism. According to the company:
Both small scale projects – around industrial townships, mining facilities and telecom towers – as well as larger projects under the NSM or through REC mechanisms are viable options
The lack of enforcements and unclear regulations in the REC market stunt the access to capital
BTI: Why has the Aditya Birla Group decided to develop solar power projects in India?
RK: The Aditya Birla Group is committed to sustainable business practices and environmental conservation. Towards sustainable resource management and furthering the growth of alternative energy in India, the Group has decided to participate in the development of solar power in India. We have taken a conscious decision to voluntarily align our energy portfolio and ensure that a sizable portion of energy comes from renewable sources.
BTI: What are the sizes of projects that you are looking to develop? Will these be under the NSM or state policies?
RK: We are looking at various opportunities independent of scale. Among small scale projects, we have evaluated setting up decentralized solar power projects for community development in and around our industrial townships, mining facilities as well as for our telecom towers. We are also keen on developing large scale projects under the grid connected policies – be it the National Solar Mission, existing or forthcoming state policies as well as the independent REC/RPO mechanism.
BTI: As a large business conglomerate, you face RPOs for your different businesses. What is your strategy to meet these obligations?
RK: As one of the largest private consumers and captive generators of power, we will of course adhere to all regulatory obligations as they are mandated in the future. However, we are seeking to move proactively to make sure that we can address these obligations promptly and efficiently. In any large corporation, there will be a mix of activities to meet the stated target including purchase of certificates, own generation, purchase of renewable power and so on.
BTI: Is the solar REC market viable? Are you looking to develop projects based on the REC mechanism?
RK: For a business venture, a stable regulatory environment is essential. This enables a fair analysis of the market risks to be managed. The REC market today faces certain challenges – the key being the lack of clarity on the enforcement of RPOs and its impact on the REC prices in the future. The regulation itself is a well thought out document, but due to enforcement issues businesses are slow in committing capital on the scale that is required. The market will remain stunted without access to capital or finance until the concerns relating to enforcement are addressed. Other problems that are systemic to the power sector such as the development of evacuation infrastructure, intra and interstate transfer of energy and payment from the state distribution companies (DISCOMS) can all be addressed in parallel after the resolution of the key issue of enforcement. We, at the Aditya Birla Group, are keen to develop projects under the REC/RPO mechanism both for sale of power to our units and to other companies that may require such power as well as to supply certificates to the exchange to help facilitate the REC process.
BTI: What are the key factors that govern your decision on the purchase of modules?
RK: The key considerations that we look at for the purchase of modules fall under three broad heads – quality, effectiveness and price. Under quality we look at the warranty and guarantee conditions that the module supplier provides, the rate of degradation and the health of the company backing the module. In cases where we have limited land availability or where land is costly, the efficiency becomes important. Under effectiveness we explore the type of guarantee provided – whether it is linear or flat, the size of the bankability reports of the company providing the module and the related balance of system costs for that particular module. Under price considerations, cost, payment terms and delivery schedule are key.
Look out for BRIDGE TO INDIA’s analysis on ‘Viability of the REC Mechanism in India’.Read more »