Solar trackers rise to global demand


The numbers are awesome. Single-axis trackers are already the most popular PV ground-mounted installation in the Americas and within four years, the 9 GW global market is estimated to hit a value of $2 billion, say solar analysts IHS. Grandview Research predicts 26 GW of trackers by 2022.
“Solar trackers are now fully viable and recognized in this country and the world as a reliable and viable peak generation resource,” Conroy says.
The effort major tracker companies are making to supply the massive demand for utility-scale installations is unique in the recent history of the industry. “It’s a vertical ascent,” said one manufacturer. Companies are broadening and duplicating their supply chains in the U.S., Mexico and beyond to support the current wave of orders, expected to drop off in the U.S. at the end of 2016 when the federal income tax break drops from 30% to an expected 10% – or to zero.
However, with proven performance and bankability reports that satisfy investors, demand among the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) is strong, and many countries in between are racing to develop large tracker programs.

Inevitable consolidation

One recent testament to the value of solar trackers as a viable product for global manufacturers was Flextronics’ (Flex) September agreement to purchase NEXTracker for $245 million by December, plus $85 million if future performance targets are met. The assembly giant had taken over NEXTracker’s production needs only months before, starting with the controller. Flex has long been a major solar player, with capacity to produce some 1.7 GW of solar panels for its clients, including companies like SunPower and SunEdison. Now SunEdison, which has agreed to purchase 1.85 GW of NEXTrackers over the next three years, will be even more strategically important to Flex.
At the time the purchase agreement was announced, Mike McNamara, CEO of Flex, said “Together with our existing energy capabilities, the NEXTracker solutions will enable Flex to further enhance our sketch-to-scale solar offerings.” NEXTracker is also expected to add $1 billion to the bottom line of the $4.5 billion purchaser. Flex has operations in 30 countries, including several with local content requirements.
NEXTracker itself has recently incorporated a variety of changes to its design, including support of 1,500 V systems. “The 1,500 V tracker adds a huge amount of value to customers; we’ve been shipping that quite a bit,” observes Dan Shugar, the CEO of the company, who will continue to champion the brand under the new owner.
Shugar sees the deal as inevitable. “We liken the solar industry to the auto industry, where the parts that first came out were hand-built, expensive, unreliable, and each was a piece of art,” says Shugar. “Ford developed standardized workflow in production, but he also did vertical integration,” he points out. “As the auto industry scale grew, it became a more modern, mature model, in which no single company can be the best in the world at everything,” he explains.
“What the car companies did was to focus on final product design, performing special innovations in-house, but having the rest manufactured by specialty fabricators, so that they became more of an assembly business.” he says. “So in the end, they concentrate on brand, final design, and finance. Now that solar is a $100 billion-plus industry, we are focused on delivering the best designed solar power plant, on branding, on financing and on long-term services,” Shugar concludes.

New generations at SPI

Frequent innovations among tracker companies is the rule, not the exception. Many of the most recent improvements in tracker systems were displayed

At a glance

  • As the global tracker market booms, more new players are coming into the U.S. market, while others are focusing on the larger emerging market countries.
  • To maintain a solid supply chain while demand grows, manufacturers are adding additional layers of suppliers in various markets, and are establishing a direct manufacturing presence in more countries.
  • Consolidation will continue in the global tracker market as fewer companies are able to survive financial pressures and global pressures. More outright closures will occur.
  • Strategic partners may become more critical to tracker companies, like auto parts suppliers are to the major assemblers.
  • Niche markets will help drive demand for dual-axis trackers and for single-axis designs that are less invasive.
  • More robotics will be included in tracker company offerings in the future, providing ancillary services.

at the 2015 Solar Power International (SPI) show held in Anaheim, California in September.
Array Technologies (ATI), of Albuquerque, New Mexico, unveiled its new DuraTrack HZ v3 at the show. Using a new single-bolt per module clamp, the DuraTrack HZ v3 requires only half the number of fasteners per MW. By late September, ATI reported more than 700 MW in orders, which helps the company maintain its position as the largest tracker supplier in the U.S. and the world, with about 3 GW shipped. Swinerton Renewable Energy alone has contracted for 1 GW of ATI trackers.
“We have about 4 GW in committed purchases from our entire customer base; the ramp-up in production is vertical,” says Conroy. “We have a minimum of two or three suppliers in place for each major component, so if one vendor runs into a glitch, then there is resiliency in the supply chain. And we are growing our supplier network in an aggressive fashion, having already expanded manufacturing into China and Mexico,” he says. “By the end of this year you should expect to hear a major announcement about our continuing global expansion plans,” Conroy adds.
Grupo Clavijo also introduced its new single-axis tracker, the SP160, at SPI. The new model sports reworked panel supports, greater motor efficiency, and faster stow response. The company has 975 MW installed globally and plans to cross the 1 GW mark early in 2016. Grupo Clavijo has offices in Chile, the U.S. and Abu Dhabi.
Exosun also launched its Exotrack HZ v.2 at SPI, which includes a centralized control system that can pilot up to 10 MWp of trackers. The new system also has fewer foundations than the market average, and includes self-grounded module clamps and significantly minimizes installation costs and time; less than 400 person hours are needed to install 1 MW, the company claims. Among features that Exosun has developed is a special design to accommodate thin film panels, in cooperation with Solar Frontier. Exosun also will be adapting its system to utilize 1,500 V panels.
One new U.S. market entrant at SPI was Optimum Tracker, based in France, which displayed its new O-Track HZ unit, which incorporates Solar Frontier’s latest generation thin-film CIS modules, according to Arthur Mareschal, Optimum’s International Project Manager. Apart from its new U.S. thrust, the company is opening offices in Mexico, Chile and South Africa, he notes.
Another new market entrant was Sun Action Trackers (SAT), a San Antonio manufacturer that is a joint venture between South Korea’s Paru Co. and OCI Solar Power, also of San Antonio. SAT is refining Paru’s earlier tracker designs and is currently supplying 400 MW of dual-axis trackers for the Alamo project across seven locations for client CPS Energy. Many tracker components are still produced in South Korea, but SAT is taking on full production of the system, component by component, says SAT’s Ron Hardin. “We will be exporting before long to Central and South America, with either single or dual-axis trackers,” he adds.
The rate of tracker innovation is keeping pace with panel innovations, suggests Shugar. “Some 20 years ago, panels were about half of a PV system cost and BOS was half, worth about $5/W for each. In today’s currency, that would be around $27 compounded at 3% or whatever. But today, panels are half the cost and BOS is still half, now with a total cost of about $1,” he reckons.

Pipelines swell

Part of the logic for the Flex-NEXTracker connection was the latter’s bulging pipeline. “We are shipping 1 GW this quarter, so part of the Flex strategy was to scale into emerging markets,” says Shugar. “Having the best tracker in the world is one thing, but being able to deploy to the four corners of the world is something else,” he says. Even tracker companies not well entrenched in the leading U.S. market are filling their pipelines quickly. “We have sold 300 MW to world markets this year, and by the end of the year will have 900 MW of SafeTrack Horizon structures installed,” notes Axel Hartung, the head of global sales and marketing for Germany’s Ideematec. “We now have more than 100 MW or 50% of the market in Jordan, about 19 MW in the U.S., and more projects coming up in Southern Africa, Mexico, Central America and Chile,” he says.
Exosun also has an order pipeline in the gigawatt range and has booked 268 MW in cumulative sales to date, according to Jean-Noel de Charentenay, the company’s Vice President of Strategy in Martillac, near Bordeaux, France. “With around 1 GW of production capacity, we are beginning to transfer technology to local market factories; we have one in South Africa, and are starting them in Brazil and Chile,” he says. “Some countries have local content rules, and all have currency exchange risk,” he notes. “Brazil had a 30 to 40% devaluation recently, so currency conversion has to be managed carefully,” he explains.

Site-challenged solutions

Among tracker makers responding to demand from site-challenged projects is Deger, based in Horb am Neckar, Germany. Deger supplied the 1 MW SunMine project in Kimberley, British Columbia, which is the province’s first grid-connected PV array, and Canada’s largest dual-axis tracker array.
The solar park was built with the company’s D100 trackers over a former mine, where the terrain was uneven and the ground is susceptible to settling during the lifetime of the tracker system. Deger’s Maximum Light Detection system adjusts to identify the optimal inclination, taking into consideration factors including clouding and reflection. NEXTracker is also beginning to focus on small and medium-size projects that rarely have perfect rectangular site plots.
“With our independent rows, we can get into nooks and crannies of a site, affordably,” says Shugar. “We really have driven down cost on the labor side of this tracker, which has the most efficient pier-to-panel ratio in the industry: Our 80 meter product only uses 11 piers, or 7.3 panels per pier, while most other trackers are in the five to six range,” he points out. “On our first huge 73 MW project in Latin America, for example, we saved the client 18,000 piers on the job,” he calculates.
On the flip-side of the constrained site market, QBotix quietly shuttered its doors of late, unable to convince a large enough share of the market that its robotic approach to actuator adjustment along a winding uphill monorail would save enough to try the technology. AllEarth Renewables, a U.S. market leader in the dual-axis market, recently released its new L20 generation tracker that features 20 landscape-oriented modules. The new design reduces metal weight with features like rolled steel purlins, and increases wind resistance beyond the 120 mph for which the earlier version was wind tunnel tested. “We are still seeing growth in demand for both residential and for small commercial installations, typically up to 1 MW,” says Andrew Savage, the Chief Strategy Officer for the Vermont-based company. With some 3,400 installations to date, AllEarth is now in 25 U.S. states and has a network of 80 installers as it moves into a pan-American market footprint.

Add-on functions

Apart from basic tracking systems, some tracker companies are adding ancillary services and hardware to their portfolio. Exosun will begin to offer a panel cleaning robot, and other smart options for tracker installation and O&M to reduce soft and hard costs. Charentenay suggests the robot could be offered as soon as 2016. “We are working on new service agreements for us or third parties,” he says. “The weight of the robot is key, since not every panel manufacturer can support a 75 kg machine; we are aiming for a 30 kg robot,” he notes.

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