Manufacturer Perspectives on Array Tracking Markets, Equipment and Innovation: Page 3 of 7
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Mike Mehawich, chief marketing officer, NEXTracker, nextracker.com
JS: NEXTracker is a relatively new company with a very long history. Can you run us through its origins and milestones?
MM: Formally founded in late 2013, NEXTracker essentially came out of the EPC side of the solar industry. Dan Shugar, our CEO, founded PowerLight back in the late ’90s. Prior to that, he worked with PG&E. His experience enabled him to bring technology and EPC thinking together at PowerLight, which became a leading installer as well as a developer of new solar technologies. That’s the core DNA of the company.
Dan, most of our executive team and I were also involved with Solaria. That company originally focused on concentrating PV module technology that required tracking. Our work at Solaria gave us an opportunity to assess what was happening in the tracker market. Basically, we found that there hadn’t been a lot of innovation in the tracking space. So we decided to take it all in house and develop our own tracker. We didn’t want to do that. It’s actually not an easy thing to develop a tracker. It may seem like a simple product on the surface; but when it comes to dealing with real-world conditions, the solution needs to last in the field, operate and rotate back and forth every day for 25 or 30 years. It’s quite an undertaking. However, we felt compelled to do it and really took a clean-sheet approach to reimagining what a tracker could look like and how it could work.
We came up with an independent row design and then moved into a self-powered independent row design where each tracker row is truly an independently operating unit that’s running off energy from the sun and not from the grid. As the module industry was getting more challenging due to falling costs and tighter margins, Dan decided that the tracker itself was interesting enough to build a separate business around. Therefore, we executed a spinout from Solaria as the new company NEXTracker. We formalized this in 2013, and saw a very rapid uptake of the technology. What we were doing resonated with our EPC and owner customers, and we started building market share very rapidly. Greentech Media named us the number one global tracker company by market share in 2015 and then again in 2016.
JS: Flex acquired NEXTracker in 2015. Did this partnership have a big impact on NEXTracker’s growth trajectory?
MM: Absolutely. That was certainly one of the rationales for us to entertain the idea of doing that merger. At the time, NEXTracker, despite having great early success with our product, was still considered a start-up. There’s always that class of customers who are not comfortable dealing with a company that’s been around only for a year or two. So it certainly provided us with a step up in terms of bankability. Now all of a sudden, the customer is dealing with a $26 billion company that’s been around for 50 years and has 200,000 employees and operations in 30 countries around the world. The partnership really facilitated our international expansion. Flex had established business operations in a lot of the markets around the world that NEXTracker wanted to enter, and the partnership certainly made things a lot easier for us to do that. We were able to leverage Flex’s existing investments in those countries and just focus on what we do, which is design and sell trackers.
JS: What services does NEXTracker offer its customers?
MM: We definitely take an approach of not just throwing hardware over the fence. We work with our customers every step of the way, from the initial contact with NEXTracker through the commercial operation of their plant. We have up-front design services. We help customers with layouts and estimating the system’s energy yield. We assist with efforts to maximize the density of the trackers on the site based on our experience. After we deliver the hardware to the site, we provide project support services. We’re out there with our customers, making sure that the installation goes off smoothly.
We pioneered a program called Power Works about a year and a half ago, especially for new customers who don’t have experience with NEXTracker. They come to our headquarters in Fremont or one of our satellite offices around the world and receive in-depth installation training and best practice guidelines. Then the customer can train subcontractors and their crews. They’re able to leverage our experience to accelerate their installation philosophy.