Solaris ex machina: 5B gets funding boost for solar installation robots


Sydney-based modular solar pioneer 5B has today announced a $33.4 million tech innovation program to accelerate the delivery of “ultra low cost solar”.  The program is supported by a whopping $14 million grant from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). The funding comes less than a year after 5B closed a $12 million funding round, including investment support from former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Smart Energy Council director Simon Holmes à Court. 

Only last month 5B acquired an Adelaide manufacturing plant ahead of the global gigawatt-scale push of its rapidly deployable, modular, prefabricated Maverick solar arrays. In a statement, 5B said it’s Maverick solution was already cost-competitive in Australia as well as a number of other markets, and that this program is designed to “leverage advanced automation to dramatically improve the scalability and cost of 5Bs solution, enabling end customers to benefit from clean, solar energy at AUD30 cents per watt installed by 2030.” 

This ambition requires a 35% cost reduction by 2023 and a 70% cost reduction by 2030, both targets which 5B has said it is forecasted to meet. 

The company’s recently launched 50kW(DC) Maverick, optimised for the 550W module class, has already been installed in 52 projects in Australia, the US, Latin America and India, totalling 32MW of capacity. The Maverick arrays have proven popular with remote regions and mining operations, including a 12 MW system which it delivered with Enerven for SA Water and a 4.3 MW project it delivered with independent power provider Nomadic Energy Australia for miner Northern Star Resources in Western Australia. 5B’s Maverick system is also the preferred technology for Sun Cable’s massive 17-20 GW solar farm being developed in the Northern Territory with the intent to export solar power to Singapore via a subsea transmission cable.

5B’s Maverick assembly.

Image: 5B

5B plans to utilise approximately two-thirds of the $33.4 million investment for the design and construction of an Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Line (AMPL). With the final third, 5B says that it will use robots to install solar arrays using GPS-guided deployment (GGD) technology. That’s right, GPS-guided solar installation robots. 

It is 5B’s claim that artificial intelligence-enabled solar installation is the next frontier of solar technology, an advance that would allow for faster, cheaper, safer and more efficient solar farm construction. 

“This program will drive a step change in our automation capability and enable local manufacturing in Australia,” says 5B chief operating office Nicole Kuepper-Russell. “We are grateful for ARENA’s support – investment like this is essential to realise the opportunity to build Australia’s reputation as a clean energy superpower, exporting cutting edge clean technology to the world.” 

Of course, the Australian government’s Low Emissions Technology Statement’s (LETS) stretch goal of ultra low cost solar generation at $15/MWh (approximately a third of today’s cost), means that ARENA is more than willing to fund such projects of ambition like 5B’s. 

ARENA CEO Darren Miller said funding 5B would certainly help reduce the cost of solar. “While solar PV and wind are recognised as the lowest cost form of generation in Australia today,” said Miller, “further cost reductions are required to optimise Australia’s transition to renewable electricity and to enable emerging industries such as renewable hydrogen and low emissions metals.” 

“5B is an Australian success story at the forefront of solar innovation,” continued Miller. “Having started in 2013, they are now becoming leaders in locally manufactured ultra low cost solar products that could reshape our solar industry and achieve our important aim of 30 cents per installed watt at utility scale by 2030.” 

“The world needs massive scale, ultra low cost solar power fast and this funding will accelerate the delivery of that” added Kuepper-Russell. 

The news comes only a week after ARENA announced $40 million in research and development funding up for grabs across two solar streams. 

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