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Self-cleaning solar panels

Image credit: A 1:4 model of the ExoMars rover at the ESA pavilion, 2007 International Paris Air Show

Darko Savic
Darko Savic Mar 31, 2021
Can we come up with a durable and reliable self-cleaning method for solar panels?

The efficiency of solar panels diminishes as dust and sand accumulate on top of them over time. Rain somewhat solves this problem. Unfortunately, the locations where the panels are needed the most (Mars, Moon) or get the most sunshine (deserts, highways), can't count on the rain for cleaning. While the wind can help, it also brings more dust and sand.

A lot of brainpower has been directed at solving this problem in the distant and more recent past. Yet the problem of dirt accumulation on the solar panels remains.

Can we come up with a self-cleaning method that requires no maintenance for the life duration of the solar panels? Ideally, the panels would be installed and forgotten. They should remain clean and operating for decades.



Creative contributions

Shaking off the dust particles

Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni Apr 01, 2021
Most DSLR cameras come with an inbuilt automatic self-cleaning sensor unit. Every time you shut down the camera, the cleaner is activated and the sensor is cleaned by shaking the dust off it. I imagine it to be a very high-frequency shaker that can remove the dust with a quick shaking bout. I am not sure how effective this cleaning system is but it is already being used. The same mechanism can be used to clean the solar panels - shake them regularly automatically.
Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni4 months ago
This may be effective for panels on Mars but not on Earth. On Earth, we have additional problems like bird droppings on the solar panels (https://cleansolar.solutions/effect-of-bird-droppings-on-solar-panels). This seems like not a big deal but is a severe problem in places where the solar panels are not easily accessible. Dropping won't be cleaned by simple shaking. Also, sun-dried droppings are the hardest to clean, I imagine 😁

As rightly noted in an article - "the sooner you clean them, the less water and force you will have to apply to take the poop off the surface!" Read more at: http://www.solarmango.com/2016/08/07/happens-bird-droppings-solar-panels/
Spook Louw
Spook Louw4 months ago
I also thought vibrating the panels would be a good solution. Another idea would be if the panels were attached to an axis and could be turned upside down to let the buildup of dust and debris simply fall down. I'm not sure if either of these solutions would be able to get the panels completely clean, but I'm sure it would help. Another avenue to approach this problem would be to, rather than think of how we can clean the panels, try and find a way to prevent them from getting dirty in the first place. If, for instance, they could be kept in some form of a transparent dome they'd be less vulnerable to the elements.
Darko Savic
Darko Savic4 months ago
Spook Louw in that case the dome would get dirty and we would have the same problem again. I was also thinking about nano-coating materials similar to mobile phone touchscreens. I don't know how they could take a few decades of sunshine and still remain effective

An attempt to characterize the problem in more detail and suggest a solution

Rogério Marques
Rogério Marques Apr 06, 2021
Dust, dirt, and bird droppings are significant reasons for solar photovoltaic (PV) system underperformance and are known as soiling.
The fact that PV solar panels aren't constantly clean is a problem that substantially undercuts global energy production.

Considering: 1) the known data on global PV installation capacity being 593.9 GW in 2019; and 2) assuming an average loss of 4%. It follows that, in 2019, the world PV production was missing a production capacity of about 23.7 GW due to PV panel soiling alone.
The cost of this loss in global PV production capacity to the global economy due to PV panel soiling is estimated at two billion US$ annually.

The soiling of PV panels has a doubly negative impact: it reduces their energy production and adds additional operating and maintenance expenses. Furthermore, soiling can shorten the PV panel's useful life by causing hot spots due to soiling shadows.

Soiling is a significant concern, especially in desert areas where rainfall is scarce. In deserts, at first glance, solar PV is an obvious choice of power source. However, PV panels installed in desert areas suffer dust deposition so severe that, after six months without cleaning, it cripples power output by reducing it by about 1/2.

This problem is virtually non-existent in the vacuum of space. However, when the panels are on a celestial body, such as Mars or Luna, we have soiling issues just like we have on Earth.

Different types of soiling impact PV output voltage differently:
  • Sand: -4%
  • Ash: -30%
  • Cement dust: -80%
  • Atmospheric dust (diameter of 80 ÎŒm to 250 g/m2): -82%
  • Fine carbon particles (5 ÎŒm): about -90%

NASA reports that their exploration robots (lander InSight, and rovers Spirit, Opportunity, Perseverance) on Mars can lose about 1% to 10% of power output from their solar panels due to dust accumulation. This dust does not seem to be a significant problem for the robots because the solar panels output almost double the amount of power needed. For example, InSight produces about 2,700 watt-hours per sol, while daily operations require about 1,500 watt-hours per sol.

On Mars what do NASA engineers rely on to clear the solar panels of robots? Currently, they rely on wind gusts, which usually correlate to boosting the solar panel's output presumably due to dust removal.

However, due to a planetary dust storm on Mars, Opportunity ceased functioning on June 12, 2018. It was hoped it would reboot once the weather cleared, but it did not, suggesting either a catastrophic failure or that a layer of dust had covered its solar panels.

I suggest no one solution is the best. Instead, I recommend a combination of approaches tailored to best suit local environmental conditions:
1) Prevent soiling with a non-stick coating: Cover the photovoltaic panel outer layer with a non-stick coating solution to make the surface resistant to soiling. This approach substantially reduces the necessary chemical and physical harshness to clean effectively. Works best where it rains due to coating conferring hydrophobic properties.
2) Remove dirt with electrostatic charge using an electro-dynamic screen: This screen can effectively clean the PV panel by drawing minor power from the PV cell itself. Only works in dry places such as Eath's deserts, Luna, or Mars, due to being ineffective when solar panels are wet due to rain.
3) Use flying helicopter-type autonomous drones to finish the job: using the airflow generated by flying the drone will be sufficient to maximize the cleanliness as a complement to methods 1) and 2)
I don't recommend robots attached to the panels because:
  • They cannot move quickly from one PV panel to another
  • Place weight on the fragile glass-lined PV panels.
  • Seem to require more human attention.

[1]«Global solar photovoltaic capacity expected to exceed 1,500GW by 2030, says GlobalData», GlobalData, Out. 17, 2019. https://www.globaldata.com/global-solar-photovoltaic-capacity-expected-to-exceed-1500gw-by-2030-says-globaldata/ (accessed Apr. 06, 2021).

[2]G. P. Smestad et al., «Modelling photovoltaic soiling losses through optical characterization», Scientific Reports, vol. 10, n. 1, Art. n. 1, Jan. 2020, doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-56868-z.

[3]J. Alonso-Montesinos, F. R. Martínez, J. Polo, N. Martín-Chivelet, e F. J. Batlles, «Economic Effect of Dust Particles on Photovoltaic Plant Production», Energies, vol. 13, n. 23, p. 6376, Dec. 2020, doi: 10.3390/en13236376.y

[4]M. J. Adinoyi e S. A. M. Said, «Effect of dust accumulation on the power outputs of solar photovoltaic modules», Renewable Energy, vol. 60, pp. 633–636, Dez. 2013, doi: 10.1016/j.renene.2013.06.014.

[5]T. Khatib, H. Kazem, K. Sopian, F. Buttinger, W. Elmenreich, e A. S. Albusaidi, «Effect of dust deposition on the performance of multi-crystalline photovoltaic modules based on experimental measurements», International Journal of Renewable Energy Research (IJRER), vol. 3, n. 4, pp. 850–853, 2013.

[6]A. Sayigh, S. Al-Jandal, e H. Ahmed, «Dust effect on solar flat surfaces devices in Kuwait», em Proceedings of the workshop on the physics of non-conventional energy sources and materials science for energy, 1985, pp. 353–367.


[8]T. Greicius, “Update on Opportunity Rover Recovery Efforts,” NASA, Aug. 30, 2018. http://www.nasa.gov/feature/update-on-opportunity-rover-recovery-efforts (accessed Apr. 06, 2021).

[9]A. K. Mondal e K. Bansal, «A brief history and future aspects in automatic cleaning systems for solar photovoltaic panels», Advanced Robotics, vol. 29, n. 8, Art. n. 8, Apr. 2015, doi: 10.1080/01691864.2014.996602.

Juran2 months ago
Hi Rogério Marques! Is this something like the electro-dynamic screen that you proposed (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBrMCUEemrE)? What I am interested in with this method is how much power does it require or, in other words, does it significantly reduces the amount of electricity produced on a large scale.
Darko Savic
Darko Savic4 months ago
Hi RogĂ©rio Marques 🙂

Amazing insight. That's what I should have included in the main session description:)

The tiny robots I proposed would not move from one panel to another but instead, each panel would have its own robot that functions much like a magnetic aquarium cleaner - https://youtu.be/HM0jIAKRIQE
It would essentially be a brick of cleaning material that periodically moves in pre-defined patterns.
Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni4 months ago
Hi Rogério Marques . Great solutions! I like the first two. In the case of the third one, I think the drones and the helicopters will simply blow the dust particles in the air and the particles might settle back down on the panel itself or the neighboring panels after a while. This method will not ensure complete removal of the particles although there might relatively less dust after the helicopter or a drone blows it. Also, this method will not remove the bird droppings on the panels.

Using an electro-dynamic screen seems like a good idea. We need to figure out the cost (in terms of electricity) required to do that. I hope it will not be equal to that generated by the panel.

Ball-shaped "solar panels"

Juran Apr 02, 2021
What if we just changed the shape of a solar panel and made it more round?
  1. It could solve dust or bird-droppings problems
  2. smaller surface for dust to drop on
  3. dust and droppings removal by simple rotation
  4. energy saving because no sun-angle adjustments needed
  5. higher energy yield


Darko Savic
Darko Savic4 months ago
The more solar panel area that faces the sun at a 90-degree angle the higher the yield. If I understand correctly, the entire sphere would be made of solar cells? In that case, half of it would be facing away from the sun and a lot of it would be facing the sun at sub-optimal angles
Juran4 months ago
Darko Savic True for up-to-date solar panels. According to SphelarPower Company (https://www.sphelarpower.com/technology/), spherical shape yields more energy due to capturing rays from all the angles and focusing them in a collecting unit in the middle of the sphere. So, the sphere is a single solar "panel". Taking into consideration variable sizes and connections between them, we could develop a system that doesn't depend on the angle or the intensity. Read more in my answer to Shubhankar's comment.
Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni4 months ago
I understand how it can be energy-saving and yield more energy. But how can it be free of dust and bird droppings? I think, smaller the surface exposed to light, the smaller the yield irrespective of the shape. So if you need energy comparable to that of a solar panel, you may need more spheres, ultimately increasing the overall surface area and therefore, the chances of being exposed to bird droppings. Also, a smaller surface area would not eliminate the possibility of dust settling and contamination due to bird dropping. They may be fewer in number and may require less frequent maintenance as compared to the panel but it would not eliminate the maintenance. Maybe I am missing something.

cleaning pad dragged via electromagnetism

Darko Savic
Darko Savic Mar 31, 2021
Each panel would have a small cleaning pad parked in a corner on top of it. Every once in a while it would be dragged along the panel surface via an electromagnetic field created within the panel. This would function similarly to magnetic aquarium cleaners.

A mini cleaning robot charged via induction

Darko Savic
Darko Savic Mar 31, 2021
Each panel would have a miniature cleaning robot parked on top of it. The robot would be inductively charged by the panel itself.

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