Engineered Simplicity: The Future of Solar Tracking
While the first solar trackers appeared on the market nearly three decades ago, the utility-scale solar tracker market is still considered early-stage and can be characterized as ‘immature’ at this point in the industry lifecycle. In recent years, many new firms have entered the market, each with varying technologies and levels of innovation. With further development in sight, investors, owners, and installers are asking themselves what trackers might look like in 5, 10, or 20+ years. As tracker technologies evolve, it’ll be important to keep the basic drivers of the solar industry in mind. The key to success will be relevant innovation that sparks improvements in efficiency and optimization to achieve mass adoption of solar at a competitive levelized cost of electricity (LCOE).
How We Got Here: Tracking vs. Fixed-Tilt
As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, the trend of solar trackers is on the rise. The application of this production-boosting technology in new utility-scale solar projects is expected to grow to nearly 80% this year. This figure shouldn’t come as a shock as the benefits of solar tracking over fixed-tilt are well documented and field proven:
- Economic Advantage: The incremental cost of implementing a single-axis solar tracking system is minimal in relation to the cost of the overall utility-scale project, typically 10% or less. This cost adder is often eclipsed by the increase in power production and revenue generation, as solar tracked sites see a 20% increase on average in production over fixed-tilt sites.
- Optimized Power Delivery Curve: The power delivery curve for a fixed-tilt system is bell shaped and peaks at midday. With solar tracking, the power delivery curve is wider, with a smooth flow of energy production starting earlier and ending later in the day. Not only does this provide increased power overall, but it allows for a more efficient and balanced use of system components such as inverters and transmission lines.
- Meeting the Needs of Utility-Scale Demand: In relation to the point above, solar tracking ultimately provides a significant increase in power production that also coincides with the peak power needs of the grid. Operationally, a tracker system’s cost of ownership is relatively low and tracker reliability ensures uptime is high. These operational advantages obviously vary by vendor and tracker architecture, but they are important to note nonetheless.
Current State of the Industry
With solar tracking quickly becoming the “new normal” for utility-scale solar projects, there have been many new entrants in the market, creating a crowded landscape. This has driven a great deal of innovation within the industry as each tracking vendor aims to gain market share within the crowded space. The ability to optimize LCOE, by reducing installation costs and overall CapEx while optimizing performance and decreasing OpEx, is the key to gaining ground.
In addition, risk assessment is becoming increasingly important, where experience, proven reliability and bankability must be taken into consideration. The robustness of trackers and their ability to last the 30-year operational life of the utility-scale site is imperative. The amount of components a tracking system deploys per MW is a key contributor to assessing risk and operational longevity. For example, many trackers rely on active stow – a horizontal defensive position – to withstand high wind speeds, which requires the use of various sensitive components and back-up sources, increasing the potential for failure of the system during inclement weather. Array’s trackers are designed to withstand the highest site winds at any tracker angle, and utilize a passive load mitigation approach to automatically relieve forces on the system, without relying on sensitive componentry. This type of risk-reducing innovation and engineered simplicity is a key differentiator in today’s market and will remain critical in the near future.
What’s Next for Solar Trackers?
Now and in the near future, cost and specifically LCOE will be a key driver for innovation in solar. Industry wide, equipment prices are dropping, installation and O&M efficiencies are improving. This trend is expected to continue over the next few years. Being able to further reduce LCOE, while maintaining quality, structural integrity, and system reliability, will be the challenge for tracking manufacturers moving forward. Engineered simplification of tracking systems will most likely become a trend that many will start follow in the coming years. While this will reveal quality issues among some tracking vendors, those who are able to maintain quality and reliability will find themselves at the forefront of the market.
Jumping ahead to the distant future, solar trackers may become completely autonomous, with no personnel required to operate the systems. They will clean and maintain themselves, be ultra-reliable, and ultimately become a “set it and forget it” type of technology. This will contribute to an extremely low cost of ownership, resulting in a low cost/high performance model which will continue to drive mass adoption of solar energy worldwide.
To learn more about the future of solar tacking, check out Ron Corio’s recent podcast with Solar Power World: