Microsoft Icon Bill Gates-Led Fund Backs Robots to Automate Solar Panel Installation

Terabase Energy aims to save costs and tackle labor shortages.

A Berkeley, California startup that automates solar panel installation has raised $44 million in a funding round co-led by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Terabase Energy has already developed software to design solar panels and improve their efficiency in changing weather conditions. It plans to use the new funding to scale up its system for mass installation, aiming to reduce the cost of developing utility-scale solar projects.

While there are existing methods to automate or digitize separate steps of solar construction and deployment, Matt Campbell, co-founder and chief executive officer of Terabase, says that the company automates the whole process. “The solar industry has come a long way, but the process by which projects are designed is largely manual,” Campbell said in an interview. Prelude Ventures co-led the funding round, and SJF Ventures also participated, bringing the total amount of capital raised to $52 million.

The company finished its first commercial deployment of robots to install solar panels two weeks ago for a 400 megawatt project in central Texas, where robots installed 10 megawatts. “It’s a big stepping stone towards the future,” Campbell said. “Next year, we’re going to be scaling it to the hundreds of megawatts.”

Terabase typically sets up a pop-up factory in the middle of a worksite. There, every 20 seconds, robotic arms attach solar panels that weigh almost a hundred pounds to a solar tracker, a steel structure that rotates panels to face the sun. The structure is then delivered to the solar array using special vehicles — these are not automated, but the company is developing an autonomous version, Campbell said. Automation can also help with the problem of finding workers willing to toil under the harsh sun, something that was an issue even before the unemployment rate fell so low, said Carmichael Roberts, who co-leads the investment committee at Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

“People don’t want those jobs, so we’ve got a bottleneck where it hurts our ability to deploy systems fast enough,” he said in an interview. “What you need is a way of leveraging automation.”

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