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3 Unexpected Technologies Improving Renewable Energy

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Image: Cargyrak/CC BY-SA 4.0

Renewable energy technology is always changing — solar cells are being developed to convert more energy, wind turbines are being designed to operate more efficiently, and energy storage is growing leaps and bounds to make the most of the power collected by these renewable energy sources. But, there are also a lot of smaller innovations that go unnoticed. Here are three examples of how technology is being used in unexpected ways to improve renewable energy.

1. Drones

Inspecting and maintaining wind turbines is a lot of work. But the use of drones, which have become more precise, easy to fly, and accessible over the past couple of years, is making the jobs of wind turbine technicians a little bit easier.

Instead of climbing up-tower or using other ground-based inspection methods, drones with cameras can be used to do blade inspections. Images can be viewed in real-time on a mobile device, or collected to be viewed more thoroughly afterward.

And their use doesn't stop there ­— in some cases, wind energy technicians are able to use drones to carry thermal cameras, ultrasonic sensors and laser scanners to aid in turbine inspections.

2. Cleaning Robots

In order to maintain their efficiencies, solar panels need periodic cleanings. Doing this by hand is not always the most practical way to maintain solar arrays, especially when you consider that many solar farms are located in deserts and other environments prone to collecting dirt and dust.

Enter the robots. A number of companies have developed solar panel-cleaning robots to get the job done more quickly and efficiently. There are a variety of models designed to meet specific needs of different environments and types of solar panels. These technologies ensure that solar panels are able to operate at their full capacity — and give solar energy technicians more time to focus on tasks that don't involve rags and buckets.

3. Eagles?!

Okay, so birds are not a form of technology. But the GPS trackers being used to collect data that can make wind farms safer for wildlife also play an important role in this innovation.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), has been conducting research using a bald eagle named Spirit and a golden eagle named Nova — borrowed from Auburn University — to gather data about bird flight patterns, which in turn will help wind turbine manufacturers develop technology that helps keep birds safe. The ultimate goal is to find methods for detecting birds flying near a turbine with enough time for the blades to stop spinning to prevent collisions.

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