What’s in your DNA?

 In Blog

Having grown up on the East coast of the United States, I looked forward to the change of seasons. Reflecting back on my childhood, I was always the most eager for spring and a ray of sunshine to help melt the long, deep freeze of winter. As delightful as the seasons are for us humans who get to experience Mother Nature from the comfort of our homes, solar power plants have to endure the elements – rain, wind, snow, heat and cold – totally exposed for decades.

In the 28 years we have been building solar trackers, Mother Nature still amazes me with her uncanny ability to reveal the slightest oversight or miscalculation in engineering design. She has revealed many flaws over the years, but through a combination of stubborn perseverance, a careful understanding of lessons learned, and perhaps a bit of luck, Array Technologies weathered the storm. We endured a long and gradual learning experience along the way that enriched us just the same.

Experience is the teacher of all things

This life-long experience reminds me of something my mother used to say to me when I was just a boy, “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” To this day her words still ring true. Our experience makes us strong. Our history of supplying trackers is backed by almost three decades of building and innovating these systems, many of them 1kW at a time. Prior to the existence of the utility-scale projects we build today, Array Technologies manufactured 1 & 2 kW trackers and delivered tens of thousands of them all over the world, to just about every climate. We have delivered trackers to desert regions, the Arctic Circle, Fiji, Hawaii, Alaska, Minnesota, Africa, the Bahamas, Scotland, Mongolia and the East Coast of the United States. We’ve even built a solar tracker that was suspended below the gondola of a helium balloon attempting to circumnavigate the globe.

We have seen a lot over the years, enough to know we likely have not seen it all, but we generally understand what works and what lasts. We know what to look out for in our new designs, and what to avoid, based on our lessons learned over almost three decades. Hence, this knowledge has manifested itself in a simple motto we live by at Array Technologies: “If it can happen in the field, it will.”

Breaking into the utility-scale market

When the opportunity presented itself to build trackers for large-scale power plants about 15 years ago, there was resistance to adding moving parts to an inanimate system. I was frequently asked, “Why add a moving element to such a beautifully simple system?” The answer was clear: because it is more efficient, achieves a lower Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) and produces a broader, flatter production curve which is more meaningful to the utility grid. All those things are true, but the real driver, like most things in business, is because trackers provide a significantly greater return on investment than fixed-tilt systems.

Breaking into the utility-scale market, the onus was on Array to produce a system that was durable, reliable and delivered the power as promised over the life of the power plant. Our tracker designs were scrutinized by customers, independent engineers and the financial community. They required us to prove performance and reliability, and scientifically demonstrate risk mitigation. With little utility field history at the time, we achieved this through Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) and extensive product testing. Over the years, the historical performance of our tracking systems became the proof in the pudding. The evolution of this disciplined approach resulted in tremendous growth for both our company and market share for trackers as a whole in utility power plants. Trackers are now the norm, and no longer the exception.

It is my personal goal to never allow Array to lose the knowledge of our history, and to continue to ensure that our experience informs our innovations. It has been a lifetime of perseverance and growth, both personal and corporate, and I am grateful to the solar industry and all the people who were part of the journey throughout the years. It has served me well and I believe that our company has thrived because our mission has always been to put our customers first, starting foremost with the integrity of our tracker design.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  – Albert Einstein

Our steady development as a company over several decades set the course for us to design our trackers differently. Inspired by nature and informed from experience, our trackers are built to withstand the wind intrinsically through simple and elegant design, much like a palm tree that moves with the force of the wind to alleviate its powerful effect. We don’t rely on the failure-prone, complex electronic interaction between anemometers, weather reports, controllers, radios, electric motors or batteries to keep your solar investment safe. We also believe that a tracker should work for thirty years with minimal maintenance. Why? Because “if it can happen in the field, it will.”

We derive maximum value for our customers by finding the optimum balance of cost, durability and performance over the long haul as defined by LCOE. It is our DNA. Unfortunately, the lowest LCOE rarely coincides with lowest upfront CAPEX cost. LCOE is the metric upon which all power plants are valued. Now that trackers have become ubiquitous, a new phenomenon has emerged, mostly spawned from the intense competition over PPAs and sometimes exacerbated by cutthroat auction processes. Our Executive Chairman, Brad Forth, calls this the “Greater Fool Theory”.

Foisted!

The hypothesis is that some developers believe they can incorporate low priced equipment for their project and have it signed off by an Independent Engineer (IE) without considering the ownership cost, performance or risk. This will in turn enable them to foist their completed projects to the “Greater Fool” at the same price as if they had selected higher-value and more reliable components, allowing them to pocket the difference. How is this possible? Surely buyers of utility scale power plants are more sophisticated than this would suggest?

After all, modules are scrutinized, tier rated, continually quality monitored and ultimately regarded as investment grade or not. Inverters are similarly scrutinized. Tier rating of these suppliers has evolved over time, mostly through costly learning experiences that will continue to haunt the unfortunate owners of sub-standard equipment for decades to come.

Most, if not all of those sub-standard equipment suppliers are long-gone and their warranties have no value, which begs the question: what are long-term warranties worth, if there are broad repeated deficiencies in a product of an inherently flawed design or made from poor quality materials? Solar trackers have not yet received the similar scrutiny that modules and inverters have. In the early days, when we were pioneering the tracker market, there was intensive scrutiny on reliability, but where did that focus go?  Our recent experience is that many of the IE’s (and subsequently the project owners) treat the performance, cost of O&M and risk profiles associated with ALL tracking systems the same in their LCOE models – I say, “Big Red Flag!”

A greater understanding

There are very few tracker manufacturers that have field experience of more than two or three years. Despite the risks, large volumes of new, unproven technology has been deployed in the field in a very short period of time and is expected to perform perfectly for the next 30 years. Operating in an open intellectual property space, most of the new market entrants have followed one another with the same design approach, developing individually-motorized row designs with a proliferation of electronics and batteries. The reliability and performance effects of this gold-rush mentality are now beginning to emerge as these systems get a year or two under their belts and Mother Nature reveals their shortcomings.

What do the FMEA of these systems look like? What can be gleaned from their short field experience? Are any of the IE firms compiling data and advising on this? Are the O&M and risk assessment models getting updated? Well, all too frequently, the answer is no. The Greater Fool Theory might just be alive and well – at least for now.

On the bright side, I guess we can consider ourselves lucky if we are always learning. It may not be easy, but one thing I can say for sure is that, What you haven’t learned or forgot to consider, Mother Nature is sure to reveal.

 

Ron Corio
Founder and CEO, Array Technologies, Inc.

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