On track for a strong year

The U.S. tracker market is expected to broaden geographically beyond the Southwest to the Southeast, the upper Midwest and New England; Canada too, will become a larger market for trackers this year, manufacturers say.

Trackers will also increasingly penetrate the U.S. commercial and industrial segment , as costs continue to decline and more tracker manufacturers focus down market from the utility segment.

The Internet of Things looks set to become more of an embedded feature of the industry this year, particularly in manufacturing, commissioning, and operations and maintenance.

Company Views on 2017

GTM Research forecast in October that “12.6 GW of PV trackers would be installed globally during 2016, up from 5 GW in 2015.” The analysts also suggested that by 2021, tracker installations would grow to 37.7 GW and account for nearly half of all ground-mount solar systems.” GTM also predict “tracker installation growth in 2017 will be 19%, compared to 83% annual growth from 2013 to 2016 and 21% annually from 2017 to 2021.” Regionally “By 2018, the Asia-Pacific region will be the largest regional market for trackers, as the Indian utility market grows and the Chinese market matures,” GTM adds.

pv magazine spoke to some of the top tracker manufacturers across the biggest global markets. Here is what they had to say about where the industry is likely to go over the coming year.

AllEarth Renewables: “In the residential and small commercial tracker market, one of the keys to success is channel deployment – essentially how are you reaching local installers to pair your product with customers around the country. This is a vastly different market from the utility scale tracker market,” says Andrew Savage, chief strategy officer for the Williston, Vermont dual-axis tracker maker.

“So refining and enhancing your techniques for reaching the customer is critical. It’s also an incredibly competitive space with all the major residential installers competing for market-share, even at a loss.”

Arctech Solar: “2017 will be a challenging and exciting year for tracker players, particularly for Arctech Solar. Our total accumulated installation will reach an unprecedented high, given that we not only possess a remarkable track record volume worldwide, but we also have a large backlog of orders on hand. At this moment, we are searching worldwide for more talent to become members of our team and to help create more miracles together,” says Guy Rong, president of the Shanghai based company.

Array Technologies: “We see the C&I segment growing over the coming year, and believe it will take a larger overall market share,” says Ron Corio, the CEO of the Albuquerque-based company.

Exosun SAS: “The tracker market is booming worldwide and 2017 should be a good year for tracker manufacturers. After traditional markets such as the US or Chile, this next year should be quite good for markets like China, Australia and Mexico,” says Francois Ménard, CEO of the Martillac, France-based company.

“We believe solar tracker manufacturers need to leverage market risks by working on a worldwide perspective and by focusing on core activities. In the last year, we have delivered plants in France, Chile, the U.S. (Hawaii), Jordan, Iran, Australia and China, showing our capacity to attend to customer needs and deliver our products worldwide,” says Ménard. “We see three big tendencies for 2017: Automation, robotization and data management.”

IdeemaTec Deutschland: “We expect a large increase in the tracker market, which began at the end of 2016, to continue through the first and second quarters of 2017, at least. The U.S. market will remain stable over next 10 to 15 years, and will continue to be the most interesting world market,” says Christian Salzeder, the CEO of Ideematec, based in Wallerfing, Bavaria.

“Globally, during 2017 we see the U.S., Mexico, India, China, Australia, Egypt, Turkey and Southeast Asia picking up, but not so much so in South Africa now because of local manufacturing requirements and delays. In the U.S., we see more states in the Southeast and Northeast opening up, especially in more hilly areas. So, tracker rows will have to be more flexible in the field,” Salzeder adds.

“There is still potential for reducing tracker costs, but we need market innovation in areas like the use of two or three panels in portrait rather than the single panel now common among most manufacturers,” reckons Salzeder, who recently opened a Charlotte, North Carolina office.

NEXTracker: “We believe that single axis trackers will continue to be the fastest growing PV mounting structure segment through 2021 – representing between 70 and 80% of ground-mount installations in several key markets,” says Mike Mehawich, Chief Marketing Officer for the Fremont, California based company.

Scorpius Tracker: “We saw very healthy 400%-plus growth in 2016, with tremendous support and more than 250 MW supplied to India, Japan, Middle East, Africa and the USA. Preparations are in full swing for similar growth in 2017,” beams Shailesh Vaidya, CEO, of the Pune, Maharashtra-based company.

Shoals Technologies Group: “We expect an increase in installed capacity, yet a smaller PV customer base as a whole in the US during 2017. However, with regards to trackers specifically, the market in comparison to fixed tilt will increase significantly. This means that even if the US PV market for 2017 remained flat, the tracker market could increase by as much as 20% over the fixed tilt variant.”

Sun Action Trackers: “We see some slowing of tracker development in Chile because the transmission line capacity is just not there, and in Brazil takeoff is being slowed by the political turmoil. We also anticipate that the North American market will continue to thrive as adoption of solar technology becomes wider accepted.  This will also be one of the variables that will cause price drops as system efficiency and production begins to grow.

In addition to our existing 400Mw installed and over 40,000 tracker units currently in use, we anticipate a minimum of an additional 700Mw to be installed in 2017 with our pipeline continuing to swell in the Latin American and North American markets.

“We expect pricing to go down, with more trackers produced and more competition,” says Bunting. “As DC wattage increases, that will also help to drive prices down,” he says. “Industry wide, a big focal point this past year has been looking at soft costs — down to things like wire management and combiner boxes — as tracker systems become more productive,” he adds.

Preparing for the Boom:

As the market begins to takeoff in several new regions, companies are set to try a range of strategies to differentiate themselves and maintain or accelerate their growth. The top tracker manufacturers also shared comments on their strategies for 2017 with pv magazine.

Alion: ”We are focused on high growth markets like Mexico, India and the Middle East. While these markets are the growth leaders for solar, they present unique challenges when compared to markets like the U.S. and Europe”, says Jesse Atkinson, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development. “These markets have higher levels of pollution and dust, corrosive desert soils, low labor quality and many remote projects that are difficult to maintain.”

“We use the concrete track as a controlled platform for our cleaning robots, which can perform both wet and dry cleaning based on need, a critical feature in these growth markets. Our unique tracker design uses almost half the steel of most torque tube-based trackers and thus gives Alion a cost advantage. We’re also building in more capabilities such as thermal imaging and back of array inspection,” says Atkinson.

AllEarth: “On the technology front, we are constantly looking to drive costs down, both in our AllEarth Solar Tracker 20 and 24 module models and in the ease of installation on the job site. This is critical. Dealers need to both be able to sell the value proposition to their customers and be able to arrive on-site and efficiently install our product so they meet the margin,” Savage concludes.

Arctech: “We are striving to become more and more attentive to customer’s demands for a better system cost structure from us. In the upcoming year, we plan to offer our clients a smarter integrated system solution, in the hope of providing them with more cost-effective products and services,” says Rong.

Array: “We are planning to roll out a services division in 2017, and apply scientific methods to O&M costs; we’ve been doing failure mode analysis for a long time, assigning frequency detection severity and remediation duration,” says Corio. “There is no standard for estimated cost of ownership for trackers in the market, and no rating agency that performs that assessment; we plan to help change that,” he adds.

“We also are expanding our manufacturing capability in Mexico as we expand our export market focus this year,” Corio adds.

Exosun: “We continue with our strategy to enter into new markets through strategic alliances with local partners, like we did last year in Brazil with Ecoluz. To attend to the promising Chinese market, we have established a strong partnership with the group ATEC Architecture, that will propose and manufacture our products on a large scale in China,” notes Ménard. “Last Summer, Fréderic Conchy, our president, moved to San Francisco to boost our U.S. market presence and help our U.S. colleagues in market development,” he adds.

“We are also finalizing a second generation of autonomous and water-free module cleaning robot for desert areas. The first generation is on test now in Chile and we should be launching the new version in the next months. This tool offers great benefits in terms of cost per cleaning, especially in extremely dusty areas where water is restricted for vital use,” says Ménard.

Finally, “As late as last summer, the data management of trackers was under-valued. Since then, it seems companies are paying more attention to the long-term viability of their products by using powerful data-management systems. Our products have tracked for more than 25 years under extreme conditions — like flood, heat, and dust — and data management for predictive maintenance and control of the products is essential. Last year, we began to include a dedicated solution, Exoportal, to our customer offers. They can access it thought a website and control. They can also capture big data on our trackers for deeper analysis.”

Ideematec: “We have invested a lot of time inventing a new tracker linkage system that permits installations as adaptable to the terrain as fixed tilt systems,“ says Salzeder.

NEXTracker: “One very exciting way we are expanding our offerings is through the use of software – with digital O&M in particular, using our newly acquired predictive modeling, machine learning capabilities that offer our customers increased performance and greater profit,” notes Mehawich. “We’ll also be shipping our first integrated solar plus storage solution – the NX Fusion Plus – in Q1. Our first deployment of this exciting technology will be for an agricultural facility in California’s Central Valley.”

Shoals: “We at Shoals have continued to pursue three key areas to ensure growth of the company as a whole. First is to provide full systems instead of separate components. Second is to consolidate strategic partnerships with a few players at the very top of the supply chain. And third is to increase our amount of international business.”

“Shoals has developed and is now deploying complete BoS packages, which include all electrical and mechanical components necessary to move PV modules and conduct DC current all the way to the inverter. Instead of supplying trackers, combiner boxes, and harnesses individually and let the EPC “sew” them together, we performed a great systems engineering effort to get rid of all redundancies that exist when you buy separate components.”

Solar FlexRack: “We didn’t have much of a presence in the tracker market until the end of 2015, so we redesigned the Turnkey Tracker and launched it in January 2016,” says Steve Daniel, Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing at the Youngstown, Ohio-based company. We also did a Black & Veatch bankability study, so in 2017, we hope to double or triple our tracker business to at least 100 MW.

“Our claim to fame is coupling services to our offering; a quarter of the deals we did during 2016 were turnkey, and that will likely rise to half this year. Many people who have worked with the big incumbent tracker companies say their service level is not that good,” claims Daniel.

Sun Action Trackers: We have been focused on controlling and minimizing the “soft costs” associated with these projects.  Our team has worked diligently to produce to most simple and productive systems as possible, down to the BOF costs such as wire management and combiner boxes.

Our new UL 3703 Certification for our PST-1AX6 Single Axis Tracking solution now certifies our systems up to 1500 volts, and we have begun strategic partnerships with international companies such as Fronius to further enhance our product offering across the board.  We are also excited to be entering the residential Dual Axis marketspace through our new dealer program set to launch in early 2017.  Solar CenTex has already signed on as our Premier Dealer in the State of Texas.

Finally, we are most excited in 2017 about our industry leading “Real Time Sensing” solution, which not only tracks the sun light in real time to maximize efficiency, but also allows for an industry first: Auto Calibration at time of commissioning, which is a sizeable time and cost savings to our clients.  We achieve this by eliminating crew requirements for fine tuning and calibration.