Mounting systems: strategies and competitive landscapes

25. February 2011 | Top News, Markets & Trends, Industry & Suppliers, Products, Applications & Installations | By:  Ucilia Wang

Mounting equipment may not be the most high-profile PV component, but it is a critical piece where innovative designs can make a big difference to costs. In an interview, Unirac executives discuss their strategies for the North American and U.S. solar markets, and the competitive landscape of a sector that is getting crowded.

Unirac racking system

Racks usually account for about 10 percent of the materials in a PV project. Image: Ameresco Solar.

Unirac has been plotting for a time when its home market will finally boom in earnest. By all appearances, that time has come for the U.S. racking equipment company, which has boosted its sales and engineering staff, expanded manufacturing and is now eyeing expansion abroad.

Racks usually account for about 10 percent of the materials in a PV project, explains Juan Suarez, senior director of engineering and program management at Unirac. About 40 percent of the labor goes into setting up the mounting equipment in a project. Overall, he says, a racking system makes up about 25 percent of the overall installation cost.

For a while, many solar module manufacturers felt compelled to come up with their own mounting system designs, because they couldn’t find off-the-shelf offerings to work well with their modules or help them market their products to buyers.

However, competition in the mounting equipment space has intensified along with the solar market’s growth. And that puts pressure on Unirac, and other mounting gear developers, to engineer equipment that serves the diverse types of installations and sets them apart from their peers.

North America

Unirac, founded in 1998, has launched seven new lots of mounting gear in the past three years, formed a utility group to target project developers and contracts a year and a half ago, and added 40 new jobs over the past year, says CEO Doug May.

The New Mexican company designs and manufactures steel and aluminum fixed-tilt racks for rooftop and ground-mounted PV arrays, runs a factory in New Mexico, and also has contracts with manufacturers to make products that carry its brand. In addition, it supplies racks stamped with customers’ names.

It got a new owner, the Hilti Group in Liechtenstein, nearly a year ago and is counting on the construction tool supplier’s large global presence to help it broaden its market reach in Europe and Asia.

For now, however, Unirac is quite focused on North America. The U.S. is growing thanks largely to utilities buying solar power to meet their regulators’ renewable energy mandates. The company is also investing its time and resources in the Ontario province of Canada to take advantage of its lucrative feed-in tariffs.

It has set up contracted manufacturers in Ontario to meet a rule that requires locally made equipment for a portion of each project. Last month, it also announced a 30 megawatt (MW) deal with Canadian Solar, which plans to bundle the mounting equipment with its solar modules for rooftop residential and commercial installations.

"I know there is a lot of pent-up demand and optimism surrounding the growth figures," May says. "We dream in aluminum and we dream in steel."

The private company has grown quickly, but May declines to provide numbers. He does say though, that Unirac has sold over 700 MW of racking systems since 1999 that spread over 100,000 installations. The company sold 271 MW of products in 2010 alone and is one of the largest racking system providers in North America, he adds. Residential and commercial installations remain its core sources of revenues.

Aside from marketing its products through its relatively new utility group, Unirac also sells its racks through distributors such as Sunwize and Solar Depot.

Furthermore, the company bought a patent portfolio from Arizona Public Service nearly two years ago and has already incorporated some of the ideas into its offerings. The company’s plan is to design a third of products in-house and source another one-third from other designs and manufacturers, May says, adding that the remainder will come from acquisitions.

"When you get into larger installations, the one-size-fits-all products aren’t cost optimized for individual installations," Suarez explains. "As project size goes up, cost has to be more competitive."

Competitors

The number of competitors for Unirac is growing, and they include established players such as Schletter in Germany and SunLink in California. SunLink, too, has entered the Ontario market with a manufacturing base and customers. The company also bought Blue Oak PV Products last year to expand its product offerings.

But it’s not just racking companies that Unirac has to worry about. Solar module makers who double as project developers also find benefits in packing their modules with mounting equipment. In January this year, First Solar bought RayTracker for an undisclosed sum. SunPower also engineers its own racks for rooftop systems and trackers for ground-mounted arrays. Solyndra designs its own mounting system to support its novel thin film modules with solar cell-lined tubes.

First Solar’s acquisition was a surprise, because thin films are already better at capturing indirect light, Suarez says. Crystalline silicon modules, on the other hand, could perform better if they follow the sun’s movement. Plus, First Solar’s cadmium telluride modules are known to be low-cost and feature lower efficiencies than crystalline silicon solar modules.

"You get more bang for your buck," he adds, "if you have high-efficiency modules and trackers."

Unirac doesn’t offer trackers, but the portfolio patent from the Arizona Public Service does come with designs for single-axis trackers. Suarez says the company is tracking the development of concentrating PV and solar thermal projects to determine if and when it should launch trackers.


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