The QBotix Robotic Tracking System is irresistibly retro-futuristic, like something out of a '60s-era World Fair, with compact modules zipping around commercial and utility-scale solar installations on a monorail, stopping briefly to adjust the panels and keep them aimed at the sun. It draws crowds when demoed at trade shows, and has been the subject of many an admiring article since coming out in September 2012.
The company, too, just pulled in $12 million from energy heavyweights E.ON and Iberdrola, among others, an infusion that follows on the January announcement of a 45-megawatt supply deal with the U.K.-based project developer Castillium.
But everything that makes QBotix unique is also what makes its quest to bust into the market in a big way such a challenge -- and an interesting story to follow. In solar, small, steady change is a constant -- conversion-efficiency improvements, cost-shaving production advances, materials tweaks, etc. -- but revolutionary innovation frequently meets with spectacular failure (see: Solyndra).
“The challenge of market acceptance and adoption is one the biggest issues we face,” said Matt Lugar, QBotix's VP of sales and marketing.
That’s why the E.ON and Iberdrola investments were as much a marketing coup as a needed infusion of capital. “It’s absolutely huge,” Lugar said in an interview. “That they have joined us is a massive endorsement. Both are global brands in that space. It’s why we highlighted it in our press release.”
As that release noted, E.ON’s investment came after the company tested the QBotix RTS “for over a year” at a site in Arizona. “We’ve been able to illustrate to them that our technology is worth investing in,” Lugar said.
QBotix’s value proposition was captured in a recent report the company commissioned from DNV GL, which said it confirmed “the capability of the QBotix RTS to achieve more than 45 percent improvement over [a] typical fixed-tilt array” and “capture roughly 15 percent higher irradiance than typical single-axis trackers.”
These trackers follow the sun east to west each day; QBotix adds the ability to adjust the north-south tilt of the panel (i.e., two-axis tracking) to give a more precise orientation to the sun.
But the traditional single-axis system makers aren’t standing still, as outlined by Herman Trabish in a GTM piece last year. Amid what Lugar calls “almost hyper-competition,” companies are focusing on two main areas: trimming the cost of installing rack foundations and reducing the number of motors it takes to adjust the panels. In other words, exactly the issues that QBotix takes on with something completely different.
QBotix says that among its half a dozen systems in the U.S. and Japan, its technology is operating on “a little over a megawatt” of solar. That’s a pittance, but Lugar said 10 to 15 megawatts are in the queue this year and that with momentum on its side, “where we are is the inflection point of massive commercial expansion.”