Kate Trono, PE, SunLink
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Optimizing PV project economics while continuing to ensure performance and reliability is increasingly an exercise in removing inefficiencies through improved high-level coordination among stakeholders. While the standardization and interoperability of components and systems are essential to economically solving a project of any size, it is the communication of cascading decisions within the project and the ability to find the best solution given a range of competing priorities that sets successful projects apart.
SunLink is one of the companies offering the tools to support just such a scenario for success. Founded in 2004, SunLink has expanded the scope of its product and service offerings from racking systems for commercial rooftops and ground-mounted arrays to a next-gen SCADA software platform and services that include engineering, installation, project management and, most recently, O&M via its partnership with MaxGen Energy Services. By offering an end-to-end solution for the projects that need it (often the small utility or commercial-scale segment of the industry), SunLink has garnered extensive expertise in solar project solutions.
Kate Trono, PE, is the vice president of products at SunLink. She heads the product management of roof, tracker and fixed-tilt mounting systems; leads the growth and execution of the PowerCare services division; manages SunLink’s TechHub team in expanding electrical and software product capabilities; and spearheads the Ideation Committee—SunLink’s cross-department idea generator. At the beginning of her SunLink career, Trono also managed a comprehensive 4-month earthquake-testing program of SunLink’s unattached roof-mount solar products. Trono holds a BS in civil engineering and an MS in structural engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.
SP: What is the status of the product development effort for the ground-up tracker design you mentioned at the Solar Power International conference in Anaheim, California?
KT: We’ll be debuting a new tracker at SPI 2016. The concept really spun out of our Ideation Committee. Trackers offer a lot in terms of their increased energy production profile, but currently they’re targeted mainly to the massive utility-scale market. Plenty of inefficiencies can be hidden in projects of that scale, and custom product implementations are not unheard of. We’re applying our lessons learned from years in the commercial rooftop and fixed-tilt space: Products that are built upon standard components and assembled into systems that address any project challenge, whether it’s loose soil, steep terrain or a unique electrical wiring design, are the holy grail of solar solutions. Our mission is to deliver the best, most economical product for any size project. When we think of our challenge in that way, exciting things come out of the design process.
SP: SunLink entered the tracker market in 2014 with the purchase of ViaSol Energy Solutions’ tracker technology. What shifts in commercial and utility-scale project development influenced this decision?
KT: The US has excellent solar resources, particularly in direct normal irradiation, making it an ideal geography for trackers. Thanks to significant gains in module efficiencies, the economics of trackers got to the point where an investment made sense for our company and for our customers. Right now, utility-scale ground-mount systems are the most profitable projects. Trackers only help the economics on these projects. While each tracker architecture has its pros and cons, we wanted a durable solution that made sense in the current utility-scale market. The centralized drive approach, using components proven over decades in the heavy equipment industry, allows us to deliver a robust, reliable product to our partners while giving us the experience we needed to become tracker experts.
SP: What was the driver behind the addition of O&M to SunLink’s service offering? How does it improve project economics?
KT: With utility-scale systems, we often get only a sliver of insight into how customers are comparing different technologies and how that’s affecting the overall financials of a project. We’ll frequently hear, “What’s your racking price, and I’ll plug that number in.” But what we’ve seen since expanding our end-to-end project solutions for the commercial and small utility projects is that we can affect a lot more than just the steel price.
O&M costs become interesting when you start talking to the stakeholders who own the systems. Owners may have three monitoring systems on one site—the inverter’s system, the SCADA portal and a cloud-based data monitoring system—and then those three monitoring systems are compounded across a multitude of sites. Trying to figure out how to determine values like portfolio-level IRR, or what is actually happening in the systems they own or whether they should send someone out to a site to service equipment can be extremely difficult. There’s just so much data, and it’s all proprietary in very closed boxes that can’t talk to each other. SunLink is focusing on the services and technology that we can offer to affect issues like these.