Manufacturer Perspectives on Array Tracking Markets, Equipment and Innovation: Page 5 of 7
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Steve Daniel, executive vice president of sales and marketing, Solar FlexRack, solarflexrack.com
JS: Solar FlexRack’s product line includes its flagship preassembled, expandable fixed-racking system and, more recently, independent row trackers. Please provide some company and product background.
SD: Solar FlexRack’s parent company is a 44-year-old metals company, Northern States Metals. The company produces aluminum extrusion products. It can manufacture anything from a hubcap to a lighting fixture to products as large as a subway car, which is an aluminum extrusion, believe it or not. It currently makes the electric vehicle charging station structures for ChargePoint.
Northern States Metals first got into the solar business when First Solar contracted it to manufacture module clips for frameless PV laminates. First Solar ordered something like 830,000 clips from a vendor in China, but due to a miscommunication, the vendor manufactured and delivered only 830 clips. One of our salespeople had been calling First Solar, and on this occasion the company said, “Could you build us these clips?” We went back and designed the clips, and we got into the solar industry. We started selling First Solar clips—millions and millions of clips.
Then First Solar came to us and said, “There hasn’t been much innovation in the racking industry. Would you guys look at designing a rack?” We designed a factory-assembled rack that installers unfolded on the jobsite. It was a real innovation and did extremely well. When the solar racking market shifted and went half aluminum and half steel, and then all steel, we developed new products. In the Northeast and Canada, some of our original markets, the labor rates are high. As we started moving to the Southeast and Southwest, where labor costs are lower, we really had to have a stick-built rack that workers could hand-assemble in the field.
When the transition to trackers happened, we bought the Opal tracker from its Spanish manufacturer. We completely redesigned it. Last year we announced the TDP 1.0 tracker, took it to market and sold 30 or 40 projects. We quickly realized that we wanted to drive down cost. We designed the TDP 2.0 tracker, which we announced at Intersolar North America this year. The reaction has been really positive. The TDP 2.0 has about 25% less cost, so it’s right in there with the current tracker market. One real difference with the new design is we can go to 90 modules per tracker. When you amortize the motor and all the electronics over that larger system, the price point goes down.
JS: Were you surprised to see such a quick transition from fixed to tracked arrays in utility-scale projects?
SD: The price delta used to be huge between the fixed and tracker systems, but it’s very compressed now. Even the installation cost is almost identical. We might get a fixed install for 5 cents per watt and a tracker install for 6 cents per watt. The tracker cost has gone from about 25 or 30 cents per watt to the mid to low teens. The additional energy production washes out that cost.
Am I surprised at some of the places they’re putting trackers? Yes, because the yield with trackers can be anywhere from 10% to 12% more, up to 20% more, depending on where you are in the country. But we’re putting trackers in Montana, Minnesota, definitely Georgia, the Southeast, all over California, and we’re looking at some in Canada. It is spreading. The numbers work, the economics work. Now that trackers have been in the field for 10 years, concerns about O&M are no longer a big deal. There used to be a fear that trackers would be breaking all the time and very expensive to fix, but there’s been enough innovation and new technologies to make O&M less of a sales hurdle.
JS: Solar FlexRack offers a range of turnkey systems and services for its customers. Does this approach eliminate the risks for clients?
SD: The added value we bring is that we have all the services to go along with the tracker. We have geologists on staff, geotech engineers, civil, structural, mechanical and electrical engineers, so we cover all the bases. We have a field services team that manages the installations. There are six people on that team. Three of them are engineers and three are field techs. We have this investment in about 15 people that really helps to make sure the projects get successfully completed.