Most installations of solar panels are in desert areas that provide plentiful amounts of sunshine. While the desert property is cheap, winds are also common. When the wind blows, it carries a huge amount of dust, which forms a layer on the solar panels. Dust on the solar panel reduces their performance, and the electrical output from the panel can reduce by about 30% with only a month of exposure to the elements.
For a 150 MW solar panel installation, even a 1% drop in the output could translate to a loss in yearly revenue to the tune of US$200,000. According to researchers, a reduction of 3 to 4% power output from solar plants all over the world could lead to an annual loss of nearly US$3.3 billion to US$5.5 billion. Therefore, it is essential to keep solar panels clean, and the most common technique presently is by using water.
However, keeping solar panels clean presently requires an annual supply of nearly 10 billion gallons of water. This is enough water necessary for a million people in developing countries. Cleaning solar panels without water is a labor-intensive task, and carries with it the high risk of scratching and damaging the surface of the panels, which also leads to a reduction in the efficiency of the cells.
MIT researchers have come up with an innovative method of cleaning the surface of solar panels. The method does not require the use of water, is contactless, and is automatic.
This innovative new method from MIT uses electrostatic repulsion. This makes the dust particles jump off the panels and does not require water or brushes. When activated, the system runs an electrode just above the surface of the panel. This results in the dust particles acquiring an electrical charge. The solar panels have a transparent conductive layer on top of their glass covering, and this is only a few nanometers thick. The system applies the same electric charge to this transparent conductive layer.
The same charge on the conductive layer and the dust particles makes them repel each other. As the conductive layer cannot move, the dust particles fall off the panel because of the repulsion. The researchers had to change the voltage until they found a range that overcame the adhesion forces and the pull of gravity and allowed the dust to lift away. They then automated the system using guide rails on the sides of the panel and an electric motor.
This is not the first time that engineers have tried to use an electrostatics-based approach to keeping solar panels clean. However, most approaches used electrodynamic screens and interdigitated electrodes. The problem with such screens is they allow ingress of moisture that can damage the electronics. If the atmosphere is dry, and moisture is not an issue, such as on the surface of Mars, the arrangement could be useful. However, on Earth, this can be a serious problem, because even the desert has ample amounts of moisture.
The researchers have found that as long as the humidity is more than 30%, dust removal was easy. However, the process of dust removal got increasingly more difficult with a decrease in humidity.