Manufacturer Perspectives on Array Tracking Markets, Equipment and Innovation: Page 6 of 7
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We’ve actually installed most of the trackers we’ve sold. We’ve done them turnkey, from the geotech work up front, pull tests, design, post installation, tracker installation and module installation. We get a lot of repeat business from these clients because they can adjust their business model: When we get to a certain point, we can hand it to Solar FlexRack and it’ll take over, and we can go do the next project. Our customers become more efficient. The project logistics are tied so much to the mechanical installation. Solar FlexRack’s installation team lead, field services team lead and project management team lead all sit next to each other. It sounds a little corny, but it’s a beautiful setup because they talk to each other every day, and it creates continuity all the way through.
Quality can be a difficult thing to sell—quality in the product, quality in the team, quality in how you deliver the project. I came out of 25 years of managing large software projects in the high-tech industry. In that environment, you learn a lot about how to manage projects. If you manage them correctly, you take a lot of cost out of the system. If they go well, the projected cost is what you end up with. But if you make one mistake in the project, there’s always additional cost, which is really hard to recapture. It’s hard for the EPC to tell a customer, it costs me this much more to do it this way, but we know implicitly that if you design it correctly and look at it correctly, your project cost is much lower. We’ve put a lot of time and effort into that side of the business. And it’s paying off because of repeat business.
Colin Caufield, VP of sales, North America, Soltec, soltec.com
JS: What is Soltec’s company history, including its introduction to the US market?
CC: Soltec launched in 2004. Initially, it was an EPC firm that focused on the European utility-scale solar market. At the time, the market for solar tracking equipment was pretty immature, and we ended up retrofitting a lot of the equipment. This inspired us to design our own product, which started with the dual-axis tracker. As the market evolved—ranging from changes in module pricing to larger market factors—we saw the trend go to a single-axis platform. In 2009, we launched a single-axis tracker that had a different architecture from what we currently sell. It used a central connecting drive, a push-pull style, where you have a lot of rows controlled via one central motor.
That was our product from 2009 to 2011, and we got the inspiration to do what is more analogous to our current architecture from developing a residential product. We made a single-axis tracker product that was for rooftops. From there, we came up with a decentralized architecture. We eventually launched the SF Utility tracker when we teamed up with a big Italian developer and started landing larger projects such as 12 MW and then 80 MW and 160 MW in the Chilean market. These projects helped us further develop our SF Utility tracker, which we’re currently phasing out. However, that product still provides the general form factor of our new tracker, the SF7, which has a few enhancements.
We landed our first large utility-scale project in the US in 2015, a 150 MW system in Minnesota. As that project started to take shape, and the Investment Tax Credit was extended, we saw a lot of regions really come in with more intention. Utilities were seeking out the EPC firms and the developers in the market and having them get an understanding for our product and where it falls within the suite of tracker products that are out there: what gives it value and what gives it advantages, such as our site-fill advantages, our land-adaptation benefits, and being able to utilize really steep slopes or undulating terrain. These advantages highlight why we were a good option and why customers in the international markets have been leaning on us over the years.
JS: What are some of the technical advancements of the SF7 model?
CC: Compared to the SF Utility, the SF7 has a much simpler form factor with the slew drive. We’ve changed the angle at which it connects to the gearbox, and that has allowed us to completely eliminate the gaps and spaces on top of the tracker. Our new tracker has 100% fill. There’s no extra space for dampers or for the motor or an auxiliary module or any of those space inefficiencies. The slew gear has additional enhancements in its performance and torque. In addition to being easier to assemble, it also performs better in high-wind conditions.
We’ve also started producing stamped pieces rather than welded pieces, which has brought down our price per watt. We’re introducing different types of mounting hardware: not just a nut, a bolt and a grounding washer, but rather rivets and also cinch clips, which really cut down on the labor associated with installing modules onto the rack. It helps us standardize all our support structure so that regardless of who the manufacturer is for crystalline panels, we can apply this uniform mounting hardware. Finally, we introduced a dc wire harness that eliminates the need for combiner boxes on the site. Every tracker has its own wire harness that provides overcurrent fusing for three strings. Downstream from that, the cable system has a T connector that allows installers to run strings from one tracker into the torque tube of the following tracker and then into a third and a fourth tracker. This streamlined cabling system really simplifies the installation process. We estimate it saves about 1 cent per watt when looking at the balance of the system cost.