REviews: Exclusive interview with Ecoppia

30 May 2022 |

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.

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