L R AS Published on Tuesday 27 September 2022 - n° 417 - Categories:PV Watch
A look at the labour shortage and its response
The professional unions draw the attention of the public authorities to the administrative obstacles to obtaining building permits. They also insist on the shortage of manpower for construction. Various solutions have been put forward: increasing professional training, giving bonuses or advantages when recruiting, insisting on the promotions offered by these trades of the future.
The Western world has always been confronted with a shortage of labour. When the shortage was too great, a solution was found in the automation of the activity. Photovoltaics seems to have reached this limit. It needs to move towards a greater use of machines. Plant construction equipment is already appearing. This is the "New Frontier" of photovoltaics. This deserves to be examined
The shortage of personnel is the main characteristic of the Western economyThe relatively low population density of Europe and the United States has always been confronted with a shortage of personnel, which has forced innovation.
The distribution and driving of piles by the American Mortenson and the Italian OrtecoThey developed a machine that positions the panel support piles, as well as another machine that drives the piles into the ground.
Automatic panel installation by the American AES CorporationAES Corporation: Curiously, AES has taken a complementary step, that of automatic panel installation.
Conclusion: We are at the beginning of the automation of power plant construction. These two pioneers will be followed by others who will improve or integrate the various activities. Having achieved a reduction in the price of solar electricity by improving the panels, the next step will be to reduce the price of this electricity (LCOE) by improving the conditions under which the plants are installed.
With the rapid increase in photovoltaic installations, one message keeps coming back, that of a lack of manpower. This message is heard in the United States, in Europe (in Germany, in France...). People want new power plants or new rooftop installations to reduce energy bills, or to limit global warming, but there are not enough people to build the power plants or to fit out the rooftops!
Labour shortage is the main feature of the western economy
Labour shortages are a historical feature of the Western economy. This concern existed already among the Romans, who used slaves to perform various tasks. It is also characteristic of the industrial revolution, which sought a solution to this labour shortage in steam power, then in the organisation of work, and finally in automation. Now, in order to move on to a new stage of generalisation of installations, photovoltaics also seems to be subject to the same constraint: in order to become widespread, it must standardise, standardise, automate and reduce the workforce. In response to this lack of manpower, a solution identical to that of the past will be sought and found.
Not surprisingly, it is in the United States, with its vast expanses and small population, that a solution to this manpower shortage is being developed.
This week, an article Robot to set solar power plant piles (Mortenson) + attach panels (AES Corp)reports that machines are locating and driving piles, while others are placing power plant panels on rails. Two companies have studied and developed two, or rather three, types of machines that will simplify and, above all, reduce construction time and the need for manpower.
Pile driving and distribution by the American Mortenson and the Italian Orteco
After obtaining a patent for the mechanised construction of wind turbines last September, Mortenson, an American company specialising in the engineering and development of industrial assets, has teamed up with Italian company Orteco. The latter has developed a wide range of products from road safety piles, to vineyard fencing, and especially solar panels and renewable energy.
As a result of this collaboration, machines for positioning the panel support piles and for driving them in have been developed. These were patented in mid-September by Mortenson:
The two partners have developed a machine that distributes the piles to be driven into the ground using GPS. This accurately positions the piles on the sites of solar power plants before construction. This autonomous system, which can distribute up to 100 steel piles at a time, places them in the exact positions they are to occupy and prepares the driving process. This distribution is one of the initial phases in the construction of a power plant. According to Mortenson, this machine can free up to 80% of the labour traditionally required to survey and mark pile distribution points on a large solar site.
The two partners also specialise in semi-automatic pile driving technology. This automation in solar power plant construction saves approximately 50% of the manpower compared to traditional pile driving methods.
Combined in a common application, autonomous pile distribution and semi-automatic pile driving machines reduce costs and the risk of injury. They free up workers for other construction tasks. They reduce the overall delivery time of solar installations.
Mortenson is already using these two machines in the current construction of its US plants.
So, whether it is with this American or with other providers (we don't know all the machine designers who can prepare the ground), it is possible to automate the laying of piles and their placement in the ground.
See also: Mortenson & Orteco Announce New Robotic Technology for Solar Energy Construction
Automatic panel installation by the American AES Corporation
Parallel to this progress in automation in the preparatory phase of construction, another American company, AES Corporation (an energy technology company with sales of11 billion in 2021, and listed on the New York Stock Exchange) is offering a machine that performs a complementary activity to this one: the installation of panels
A robot, called Atlas, driven by artificial intelligence, lifts, places and attaches solar panels. This simplifies the construction of power plants, makes the construction of power plants safer, shortens construction times and reduces the overall cost of the energy that will be produced. According to AES, this is the first machine of its kind.
Read also: First robot for automated panel installation
AES launches 'first-of-its-kind', AI-driven solar installation robot
These machines make it possible to further reduce the price of building power plants and thus the price of electricity. Automation is essential if solar installations are to be scaled up quickly and costs reduced. BloombergNEF estimates that 455 gigawatts would need to be installed each year until 2030 (compared to 200 and 280 GW installed in 2022) to meet the targets of a 1.5°C global temperature increase by 2050.
In just a few years, the installation profession is moving from being a craft industry to being an industrial one. This is the only way to further reduce the price of electricity (LCOE) and to meet the demand for increased electricity consumption. At the same time, automation will lead to further concentration among installers, to the benefit of the biggest players capable of using expensive but efficient machines.