5B Maverick robots set to transform solar

The gift of a solar powered car at just eight years of age set 5B’s Nicole Kuepper-Russell on a pathway that is transforming the way the world produces energy.

This week Kuepper-Russell joins us on ARENA’s Rewired podcast to explain how 5B’s unique approach is making solar faster to deploy and more affordable.

Her solar journey started in childhood, inspired by a toy car that was powered by sunlight without the need for batteries.

As a child of mathematicians, her curiosity was encouraged and developed into a love for science.

“We would spend the holidays trying to calculate how many litres of water are in the ocean and you know, stuff like that… I think I was five when my dad first tried to explain, like the theory of relativity.”

This led Kuepper-Russell to the University of New South Wales’ School of Photovoltaics & Renewable Energy Engineering, where the late Professor Stuart Wenham inspired her with a vision for solar to improve access to energy and tackle climate change.

Undergraduate studies were followed by a PhD with a focus on printing solar cells, all with an eye to manufacturing low cost solar cells in developing countries.

In 2020, after a decade with management consultants Bain and Company, Kuepper-Russell joined Sydney solar pioneers 5B to support their work to install solar faster, more efficiently and at a lower cost than existing methods.

Improving a“not terrible” status quo

5B’s hardware will underpin Sun Cable’s massive new Northern Territory solar farm in development, which will supply renewable electricity to Singapore via a 5,000km undersea interconnector.

The scale of the $30 billion project is unprecedented, with up to 28 million solar panels to be installed across a 12,000 hectare site near Tennant Creek.

Seeing an opportunity to improve on existing practices, 5B has developed the Maverick – a prefabricated solar array that can be assembled in a factory and deployed rapidly and safely in the field.

The system removes the need to package individual components, then manually install racking and fit panels on site.

“It’s quite slow. It’s quite risky. If it’s raining, it’s very difficult to do it,” she says.

ARENA is supporting the construction of a high volume manufacturing line at 5B’s Sydney headquarters that will take advantage of automation and robotics to roll out the Maverick arrays at scale.

“We like to say there’s no wet weather events in a factory,” she says.

5B expect to see a sharp reduction in the overall cost of delivering a solar farm, predicting a 35 per cent cost reduction by 2023 that will grow to 70 per cent by 2030.

5B are one of the promising and pioneering Australian solar startups seeking to turn our world-leading solar university research into real world innovation to make solar farms cheaper and faster to build.

Another is Sydney-based and ARENA-funded company SunDrive who are focussed on making solar cells more efficient and cheaper to make using copper instead of silver, and recently broke the world record for solar efficiency for the second time in a matter of months. Listen to our ReWired podcast on SunDrive from earlier this season.

This could unlock Australian Government’s stretch goal to deliver ultra low cost solar at 15 cents per watt under the latest Low Emissions Technology Statement, and ARENA’s ambitious “Solar 30 30 30” target to achieve 30 per cent solar cell efficiency and solar farms installed at 30 cents per watt by 2030.

Robots arriving

As well as prefabricating solar panels in factories, 5B are looking to automate the manufacturing process to make it faster and cheaper.

Kuepper-Russell said that the first robots will be in place by the end of the year to help achieve 5B’s goal of deploying one terrawatt of solar by 2030.

“Robots are out there that do car manufacturing, for example. So we’re not talking about inventing new robots, we’ve invented a new product.”

Acknowledging that robotics are expensive, she explained that the ARENA-supported project will provide an evidence base to inform the economic case for the prefabricated solar system.

“All the answers are there, you know, which I couldn’t say 18 years ago, when I entered the industry… But now you can you stare at the costs? And you’re like, Yeah, let’s just get this. Get it done. Yeah, let’s get the transition happening. Come on!”