Manufacturer Perspectives on Array Tracking Markets, Equipment and Innovation: Page 7 of 7
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JS: What services is Soltec offering its clients?
CC: We offer layouts for site design. This is an important point to speak to because our tracker is different from some of the others on the market. The design of a layout utilizing another supplier’s products might be different from one using ours. We definitely encourage customers to let us review the site design because we can come up with a lot of efficiencies to either make the site more productive and get more kilowatt-hours out of the plant, or lower some installation cost, such as having fewer linear feet of trenching or less cabling or fewer rows than the customer’s layout shows. We also offer production modeling on the front end. Once projects are starting to take shape, we offer recommendations for foundations based on in-the-field results of geotech analyses. We don’t perform the geotech, but we review it. We recommend designs for conditions per the local codes for wind, snow, seismic and those types of concerns.
We’ve done a lot of our own installations. In other markets, we offer that. In the US, we have done only one project where we performed the mechanical installation of the tracker itself, everything from the pile to the mounting of the modules. We offered that as a way of showing a customer who hadn’t bought from us a proof of labor savings. Soltec can perform that kind of work, which at the very least offers some surety to our customers. Should they need qualified personnel on-site with experience putting our product in the ground, we have those folks on hand whom we can deploy to sites. However, we’re not striving for installations in the US. We don’t want to compete with our EPC customers.
JS: Where do you see the tracker market in a year or two? Are you anticipating any big changes?
CC: I’ve been seeing interest heat up in bifacial modules, and our tracker has some natural advantages when it comes to accommodating that type of module. Because Soltec trackers have a two-up portrait module configuration, the tracker’s torque tube doesn’t shade the bottom half of the bifacial modules. It’s also higher off the ground than some trackers, so it gets more refracted light. We have an installation with bifacial modules, and I’m excited to see this application in action.
Patrick Keelin, director of product management, SunLink, sunlink.com
JS: SunLink is a pioneer in low-slope racking systems for C&I applications, and more recently it introduced both centralized and independent-row array tracking systems. What is the general timeline of SunLink’s product line?
PK: SunLink started over a decade ago with solutions for the commercial rooftop market. We expanded to ground-mount systems and have completed five product design iterations. SunLink’s newest GeoPro system supports both landscape and portrait module installations. The latest iteration of the GeoPro has captured a big chunk of the fixed-tilt market. That heritage of doing five iterations of fixed-tilt systems is really important because it has also informed our tracker design. We acquired the ViaSol tracker about 2.5 years ago and have done a number of projects with it. We also quickly started on development of a new tracker, the TechTrack Distributed. We took the best of what we learned from the fixed-tilt system and what made that system a commercial success, and we applied those lessons to the tracker design.
One of the key items that made the latest iteration of the GeoPro system so successful is that it is highly modular and inventoriable. We use the same set of components and deploy them on many different types of project configurations. This has allowed us to leverage economies of scale. It has simplified our supply chain, reduced our lead time, and ultimately reduced cost and then price for the consumer. It simplified the layout of the projects as well. We applied all of these ideas to the TechTrack Distributed tracker.
A number of innovations within the tracker itself, including pivot design and dynamic stabilization, make it extremely modular. The virtual pivot pulls a lot of torque out of the torque tube. When you combine that with dynamic stabilization, which grounds the torque in multiple places rather than having the torque collect at the slew drive, you can standardize on very few types and thicknesses of torque tubes and posts. The tracker’s bearings, rails and clips are universal—they work for any project.
Mechanically, the TechTrack Distributed has the ability to control the stiffness and damping of the structure in real time, and that’s a true innovation. We’ve introduced a support that we can control according to environmental needs, and that gives us a new dimension to play with when it comes to resisting environmental forces. This has allowed us to reduce the number of posts by 15% and the metal in the torque tube by 20% relative to our TechTrack Centralized model. We’ve been able to standardize a lot of the components and reduce post size. It also provides us an avenue to further cost reductions going forward.
JS: SunLink was early to the game with providing support services such as engineering and geotech. What services does SunLink currently offer its clients?
PK: We offer a very wide range. Geotech testing is one of our most popular services. We offer full turnkey installation of both fixed-tilt systems and trackers for projects under a certain size. Stamped engineering document packages come standard. We have a dedicated project manager. We’ve also introduced an expanded set of services now that we have a more intelligent tracker, which includes data integration support. We have our Vertex data monitoring system, which works with our tracker to give great visibility into how the tracker is performing. The Vertex system is integral to how we deploy and maintain trackers more efficiently.
JS: Are you surprised to see the industry moving so quickly to tracked systems for utility-scale projects?
PK: Not in the US. The generation benefit given the good irradiance is really impressive. The US is especially good for tracking systems and their generation benefit. In a financial model, the increased generation makes a lot more difference than the cost increase, so I don’t think any of us are surprised to see the shift. Where we have been a little bit surprised is the places where people have installed trackers.
Trackers are a great option for many reasons, but we do scratch our heads when customers ask us to quote trackers in Canada and so on, where the irradiance isn’t as good. You don’t get the generation boost that you would in many other parts of the country, and there may be some really high environmental loads, especially snow, that a tracker system simply isn’t as good at dealing with as a fixed-tilt system. SunLink focuses on providing the right solution for the project at hand, and that’s because we offer more than one solution. We can advise the client on what will work better over the long term for a particular site.
JS: What are some of the hurdles or next steps in the development of large-scale array trackers? What pain points is SunLink working on eliminating?
PK: Really using performance data to enhance the system performance over the long term is going to be a big topic of conversation. It goes back to how solar projects are built and financed with the ITC. EPC firms often pick the lowest-priced system. They might hold on to the project for a year and then transfer it to the developer. The developer holds it for 7 years to make sure there’s no recapture remaining on the ITC credit, and then sells it off to an institutional investor. As we go forward and solar matures, we’re going to need a lot more transparency around the performance of those systems. If you capture the performance data—the uptime or some correlation between the environmental events those systems see and the failure rate—then you can start to design more cost-effective systems or systems that can better withstand the rigors of the job in the long term.
JS: What are some important technical considerations when customers are evaluating a tracking system for a specific site?
PK: There are two things. Number one is to match the technology to the job based on the slope or the temperature or the geotechnical characteristics. The decision isn’t just fixed tilt versus tracker. There are a number of different trackers, so site characteristics have an important influence on the equipment selection. It’s not like company X has the best technology; the question is, what is the best technology for this site?
The second important consideration is data integration. Addressing this early in the project development cycle is really beneficial. It’s oftentimes the last thing addressed, but, depending on the architecture that the tracker manufacturer uses, it’s very possible to leverage the intelligence of the tracker system to make a more cost-effective data system. We recently delivered a 60 MW project where the SCADA provider really appreciated that we collected all the information into a single plant controller. Instead of needing to monitor 60 different points, the provider could interface with one device. When working with other tracker manufacturers, it had to interface with 60 or more devices. We always try to provide a simple data interface so the customer has to do a lot less integration work.
JS: You were deeply involved in the development of SunLink’s TechTrack Distributed product. Are trackers an exciting product to be working on?
PK: Oh, yeah. Tracker technology is moving very quickly. A lot of innovation lies ahead. I recently gave a presentation at Intersolar North America where I drew a parallel between where we are with tracking systems and the development history of industrial wind turbines. Wind turbines transitioned from passive to active and fully dynamic systems. It is absolutely amazing how intelligent wind turbines are today. But 20 years ago, the big debate was whether it was worthwhile to adjust the pitch of the blades. That feels a bit like where we are at with tracker systems. The industry is just starting to use intelligent systems to enhance performance, but we have a long way to go. I’m really excited about the future in this space.
Joe Schwartz / SolarPro / Ashland, OR / solarprofessional.com