Reducing O&M Costs: Why Solar Trackers are Becoming a More Important Piece of the Puzzle

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The use of solar trackers at new utility-scale solar sites has grown to over 70% in the United States, making this once optional technology the “new normal” for ground-mount solar systems. And as previously discussed in our earlier blog entry on tracker reliability, this means tracker operations and maintenance (O&M) costs will inevitably become a bigger piece of the overall solar asset O&M pie. However, while the increasing quantity of solar trackers in the field are driving the need to look deeper into tracker O&M, other market forces are starting to push the case even further, specifically in the United States.

The Suniva Trade Complaint and Decreasing PPA Prices

Lowering costs on solar system components have been a big part of the solar industry’s growth in North America. Much of these lowered costs have come from dramatic price decreases to PV modules specifically. As many of you already know, the Suniva trade complaint could dramatically impact the PV module supply chain. If Suniva is successful and a tariff is placed on non-US modules, the overall cost of solar systems would increase, as 87% of modules are manufactured outside of the US. This could cause growth of the industry to slow or stall.

Meanwhile, PPA prices are continuing to decrease, adding an interesting dynamic to the puzzle. For the industry to mitigate this, Greentech Media Research (GTM)  estimates that utility solar plant costs will need to be cut in half by 2030. The question is, how will this happen? There have already been massive decreases in CAPEX utility solar costs over the past three years; module prices have dipped below $.30/watt, and inverter and other BOS components have seen significant double digit price decreases as well. While there’s still some room to improve CAPEX utility solar costs through technology optimization, it’s not enough to cut plant costs in half by 2030.

Demand for O&M Cost Reductions

To reach cost goals by 2030, GTM estimates that O&M costs at utility-scale solar sites will need to be cut by two thirds (2/3). As you can imagine, this is a difficult task. Cutting CAPEX can lead to using less proven, lower cost components, often times presenting reduced reliability and O&M cost uncertainty. In these types of cases, OPEX costs may eventually increase to unsustainable amounts. Upstanding owner/operators want to conduct O&M without cutting corners in areas such as safety, local wage requirements, and quality of work. Therefore, the focus needs to turn to the O&M costs of system components.

How Solar Trackers Can Play a Role

This is where the choice of solar tracker becomes very important for utility-scale sites. There are few different types of tracker architectures, and while they all accomplish the same task – track the sun from east to west to maximize productivity from PV panels – some require much more maintenance than others. To keep tracker O&M costs as low as possible, it’s important to utilize trackers that require less electrical and electromechanical components for operation to minimize risk and failure points. In addition, proven long-term asset performance and trusted reliability will be important factors to consider, all of which contribute to achieving the lowest cost of ownership of a solar tracker system.

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