Podcast: How NEXTracker ‘decapitated the duck’ with its new solar-plus-storage tracker design

solar builder buzz NEXTracker photo

Being the No. 1 tracker worldwide according to GTM Research, I will assume you’ve heard of NEXTracker and its decentralized tracker design by now. What you may not know about is the company’s giant leap into the storage arena with two solutions — NX Drive, a standardized battery enclosure system for generation-plus-storage or stand-alone storage applications, and NX Flow, a modular, integrated solution designed for long duration solar-plus-storage applications.

NX Flow in particular intrigued us – a solution so unique the company worked on and created a new UL standard to test for and prove what it does (more on that below). We stopped by the Fremont, Calif., offices to chat with Chief Technology Officer Alex Au about the concept, maximizing MWh over pure MW, decapitating the duck curve and the effect tariffs might have on all of this.

Be sure to download the full podcast interview below (and subscribe!), but here are three big takeaways.

1. The NEXTracker NX Flow is a 30-kW tracker row with a battery coupled just to that row, making it a modular power plant that achieves a renewable base load. There are two keys to its value proposition. One is the battery.

Au: “Two years ago we started an RFP called ‘Decapitate the Duck’ specifically to address the storage market. We reviewed north of 40 technologies. We had an aggressive demand profile, tested units and agreed to move forward with the Avalon battery — a vanadium flow battery. As of Christmas last year, we were able to pass the point of 10 years worth of cycles. Approximately 1.25 cycles per day, 100 percent depth of discharge. We haven’t been able to detect any degradation. With other batteries there are maintenance cycles and equalization time, but we haven’t had to do any of that either.”

“The Avalon product mates perfectly with one of our 30-kW rows; it is a 6,000 lb unit, can ship completely wet and has actually gone through a burn-in cycle in the factory. That testing and burn-in period means you literally just plug in the DC wires for the modules and then the AC grid. Takes less than an hour and 15 mins to do the full installation with piers and everything.”

2. The second key is the work done with PG&E and UL to create a testing standard that proves the system is only using the grid to power a few electrical components and not charging the battery or sending electrons back into the grid.

Au: “The NEM program, the (self-generation incentive program) SGIP and ITC, have a common theme: If you’re going to participate, you cannot take the energy from the grid and sell it back. You have to have 75 to 100 percent of the power generated from a renewable energy source. To do that, you need meters to show how much of the PV is being produced, and how much is being put on the grid.

“That’s not an integrated solution. You literally have to split everything out and have to put a meter there for added cost. And then to govern that, there is additional labor and time required. We wanted to do everything natively. We took our Self-Powered Controller and put it inside the battery, so we’re talking to the battery and to the inverter, which is on our native SCADA platform.

“Two weeks ago the utilities and PUC came in and said we could start moving forward with this. This is a true milestone for us. We said we will take on the extra burden of creating a power plant – a renewable base load – and we’re going to get it approved by utilities and we’re moving forward with that. We’ve essentially changed the industry.”

3. In the end, NX Drive isn’t necessarily generating more power, but smoothing out production much better over time. But, because of the modularity and the system’s tracking algorithms and data analytic capabilities, more production is possible too.

Au: “You no longer have clipping loss. A lot of guys design DC to AC ratios north of one. In our case, any time you go north of one, it gets stored and could be used in the later part of the day. That’s why we called our RFP ‘Decapitate the Duck’ because the energy is stored and shifted to later times when the head of the duck [curve] would pop up.

“We can go out and apply for an SGIP type program and can put more than 1 MW of PV panels out there because a flow battery actually falls into the fuel cell category. All we care about is nameplate rating. So we have a UL listed inverter with guts that are 30 kW but de-rated to 15 kW. So, instead of 40 tracker rows, we have 60 tracker rows and take a lot more of the energy produced in the day, store it, and then release it later in the day when the sun sets.”

Be sure to listen to the full interview for more on the concept of TrueCapture, what NEXTracker is doing with its advanced analytics and more on the complicated but game-changing proposition of including storage at the point of generation.

— Solar Builder magazine

Solar trade case talk and what’s next with SEIA CEO Abigail Ross Hopper

SEIA CEO trade talk solar builder buzz

At Solar Power Northeast last week in Boston, we grabbed 15 mins of SEIA CEO Abigail Ross Hopper’s time to chat about where SEIA and the solar industry go now that the trade case drama has ended and the 30 percent tariff is in place. Below is a truncated version of our chat, but be sure to listen to the entire episode (and subscribe!) using the links below.

Was SEIA surprised by the trade case outcome?

“I was a litigator for a long time, and when you get ready to try a case, you get completely convinced of your own position and it can be hard to see outside of that. I felt like, at least for me personally, there was a brief moment in time that I was entirely convinced there would be no finding of injury, no tariff, and this would all go away. I became disabused of that idea pretty quickly [laughs], and so we were in the realm of the possible, and we have a president who likes tariffs, who ran on an aggressive trade policy, so we knew there would be something coming. And our job was to articulate why it was a terrible idea, but also to mitigate the impact and to put some boundaries around it. There were pieces of it that did provide some hope. The 5 percent step down was significant. The exclusion for cells at 2.5 GW.

“One of the most interesting parts of the whole process was the galvanizing effect it had on our industry. In the face of a really sign threat, it brought together people in the solar industry and lots and lots of people outside the solar industry.”

Here, I drone on about how the broad coalition SEIA brought together to fight against tariffs reminded me of the plan hatched by Adrian Veidt in The Watchmen (creating a larger threat that brought together parties that previously were at odds). The point being:

Will these new relationships, which came about only through this fight against tariffs, lead to a longer term win for the solar industry?

“I don’t know if I would go quite so far as to say it was beneficial, but I do think there are unintended consequences that will benefit us. One of them is, our industry did galvanize and speak with one very loud voice. There was no question who the solar industry was and what our position was. I knew we had done a good job when I was sitting in the White House and someone echoed back to me how many jobs would be lost. And it was my number that my research department had put out. So when the administration officials told me it would be 88,000 jobs, I thought OK, we are doing something right.

“And I think as an industry, for us to play on that big stage and to have the Sean Hannitys of the world involved, and to be on Fox and Friends, and to have the Heritage Foundation involved … it gave us a sense of what was possible. I feel strongly, we are 1 to 1.5 percent of energy generation, and we’re going to be 30-40 percent, and we’re going to have to play on that big stage, and this was an opportunity to do that.”

Do you now think the broader solar message is going to resonate more? You galvanized for a different reason, but maybe those outside of solar picked up some nuggets of information or understood the value a little bit more than they did prior?

“I think so. There were some myths that were circulating around the trade case. One of them was that solar was too expensive and was being grown by policy like RPS or mandatory procurement by utilities, but research tells us that’s just not true. Two-thirds of solar last year was bought because it was the lowest price. We compete head to head with natural gas and with wind, and we win based on price. That was not something that had penetrated government officials or the general public. So that is a message that will continue to resonate. People were constantly surprised that most homeowners aren’t choosing solar because they want to go green, but are choosing solar because they want to save money.

Seeing how well this large-scale, well-funded push worked at spreading the message of the solar industry, is there any chance of launching as big of a push, but for different issues? What are the broader next steps?

“I’ll say two things. One is that I think it would be natural for the industry and association to step back, and take a deep breath, but that is the opposite of what we’re going to do. Now is the time to step up. That’s the general theme.

“More specifically, we’ve looked at where the tariff is going to be the most impactful across the states, and we’re putting together a package of ways that these states could mitigate the #Trumptariff. So, if you’re in North Carolina, here are four things the governor or legislature or commission could do to help solar continue to grow in North Carolina. What policies need to be in place to continue to grow solar?

Outside of the trade case, what are some other issues – like the Eversource demand charge in Massachusetts – that SEIA is focused on?

“Obviously we are cognizant of the [Eversource] demand charge and think it’s a terrible precedent to set, and we are working with people in Massachusetts to change that. But we are focused on a couple things. One is consumer protection. If you look at areas in which we are vulnerable, we’re vulnerable to claims that we’re bad actors. So we have an aggressive consumer protection effort in place and are working with attorney generals across the country on that.

“Diversity is another place in which I personally have a lot of interest. I keynoted an event this morning, with a couple hundred people there, and to say a handful would be generous, of people of color, and a couple women in the room. This industry is just a very homogenous industry and we need to change that. And we need to make sure that solar is accessible to all members of the community — the actual product as well as the workforce.

“I think solar + storage, what policies need to be put in place, to allow that to continue to proliferate. And another, I know this is super wonky, but wholesale markets. Secretary Perry had this proposal to subsidize coal and nuclear energy, and its veil of resiliency and reliability. That was rejected, but the issue is going to get kicked to the regional transmission operators and we need to be in those conversations. Not only so others don’t get incented because then we’re not going to win on price, but also so that we create pricing mechanisms and structures in the market place so solar can get compensated for what we bring to the grid.

“The energy world is so dramatically different than it was 10 years ago. There is consensus that things are changing, so part of our job is to make sure they change in a rational, structured way rather than go off a cliff [laughs.]. So things like market design, while it’s not particularly exciting, if you explain that we just want to make sure solar gets paid for what it brings to the grid, people get that.”

— Solar Builder magazine

Podcast: How to sell solar in the Midwest with Inovateus Solar President TJ Kanczuzewski

Inovateus solar buzz

Outside of the solar hotbeds on the coasts, a solar company might need to be even more passionate to succeed. Inovateus Solar, for example, has carved out a sizable solar development market in the Midwest – a journey that has required a ton of customer education and a deep corporate belief in the mission of advancing renewable energy. We stopped by the company’s South Bend, Ind., offices to chat with President TJ Kanczuzewski about how they’ve done it, the book he wrote about it, the role of solar + storage going forward and the company’s new energy fund.

Listen (or subscribe!) at the bottom of this post. Here are some highlights:

First important note: I successfully pronounce TJ’s last name.

We start with TJ’s book, Building a Brilliant Tomorrow, and dive into the history of the company, which I find fascinating for how nimble Inovateus has been — never settling on one business model – but always staying true to its core purpose of pursuing solar business, wherever that leads them. This mission started with TJ, after he left a large company to pitch his dad on a wacky idea he had for expanding his company into solar.

“I didn’t get a sense of purpose working for the second largest mall owner-operator in the country,” he says. “I wanted to do something meaningful … and renewables is something our country needed and was something I was passionate about.”

This is the passion that was needed to jump start a dormant solar market in the middle of the country.

“We are solar evangelists,” he says of the company’s approach. “Sometimes we are just meeting with someone, establishing a relationship and teaching them about solar, and it might take 3, 4, 5 years before they do something, but when they are ready and looking for information, they’re going to call us up.”

This brings us into meta topic of “the psychology of renewables” which undergirds this entire business strategy.

TJ’s hot take: Not enough people working in solar practice what they preach. “I wanted to drive an electric car so that I could think like someone who drives an electric car.”

Our second favorite term after solar evangelist: Professional opportunist.

“We have to be professional opportunists because of where we are located. If a job pops up, we have to go after it whether it’s small or large.”

Finally, as usual on the Solar Builder Buzz, drinking a beer leads to an actual segue to solar business discussion, including why solar + storage, in more and more cases, is creating a better investment opportunity than just solar on its own. This leads me to get excited and fumble my way through a retelling of why our Project of the Year for 2017 was so awesome. Do yourselves a favor and just read what I wrote on it here instead of listening to me babble.

We end with some news on a new energy fund the company is launching. TJ also references a Michigan State carport project, which we covered here, and in this feature we did on the carport opportunity in the market.

— Solar Builder magazine

SB Buzz Podcast: Fronius’ Dan Fortson on the future of inverters, how he’d fix energy policy

solar builder buzz podcast

Dan Fortson, applications engineer for Fronius USA, is a lifer in the solar energy – starting back in the wild west days of the ‘80s, learning from the early off-grid PV pioneers to now working for one of the top inverter brands in the industry. He has seen a lot over the years, and he’s not opposed to giving a few hot takes about solar and its place in the world. So, he made for a fascinating podcast guest. Our chat ranges from the technology most exciting him today to what he would do if he could change the energy industry right now. Click to listen, download and/or SUBSCRIBE below.

1 min. We start by discussing Dan’s start in solar — which dates back to his interest learning about energy in junior high science classes: “There’s something dreadfully wrong here.” I say “kind of” too many times.

2:30: What his first PV installation looked like and who is early mentors in the solar industry were.

4:20: Hilarious coincidence about what Dan alludes at this minute-mark.

6:00: What’s been most surprising to him about what’s possible today compared to the systems he was building in the early days – from racking fabrication to inverter technology to batteries — and how batteries can be like animals.

9:00: The effect the SunSpec Alliance standards are going to have on PV technology and system architecture going forward. Hot take #1: Why we might be a little too concerned with safety.

13:30: I struggle to come up with the words to explain the new testing for arc faults, which I wrote about in this article here.

15:30: Hot take #2: How utilities are overstating the issue of grid power quality.

18:10: How Dan would change the energy industry for the better. “Every form of energy is subsidized … We don’t fight wars over sunshine; we fight wars over oil.”

21:30: We get into some of the inverter tech support headaches that Dan sees in the field, and then he offers some advice for avoiding some of the most common installation errors he sees.

24:30: We end discussing some of the new initiatives and products that you can expect to see from Fronius heading into 2018. Be sure to take a look at their brand new website and check out this vision they have for the solar industry by 2020.

— Solar Builder magazine

On the Scene: We went to the Eaton Experience Center to see the grid’s future

Eaton Xperience center

Eaton is one of those companies that does everything without you realizing it, with innovations for industries as diverse as aviation, data centers, food and beverage, rail and, of course, utilities, just to name a few. The company recently expanded its Experience Center in Pittsburgh to show the latest advances in electrical power quality, energy management and safety in a real-world, hands-on setting for interested customers, electrical contractors, consultants and builders in need of training.

In other words, it is a playground for engineers. Everything around the building, except maybe the coffee maker, is labeled, which isn’t just useful for novices like me.

eaton experience center“We’ve had engineers come in here and we’ve asked them to identify a transformer, and they couldn’t do it. They could easily point to the symbol on a design, but they don’t always see them in real life,” noted Dan Carnovale, Power Systems Experience Center manager for Eaton, which again shows the practicality and importance of the Experience Center.

The Solar Builder team stopped by to take it all in, and believe me, it was a lot to take in. Full disclosure: I was showed a lot of stuff and took a lot of notes as fast as I could. That notepad contains in-depth info on super capacitors that aid in solar smoothing, substation vs. pad-mounted transformers, balancing voltage regulation on a larger scale, aggregating string inverters in larger applications and more. The formula for cold fusion might be in there somewhere, but we will never know because they are illegible and incoherent. But that’s OK because the Experience Center isn’t about relaying those details, it’s about the experience, duh.

chris crowell at eatonExperiencing the Experience

The facility includes a functioning microgrid demonstration. There is a 24-kW solar canopy in the parking lot, 86 panels on the roof, 30 kWh in battery storage and a 100-kW generator, all of which are controlled by Eaton’s Power Xpert Energy Optimizer controller. The intersection of all those assets and optimizing their usage is at the core of advancing energy resiliency, so that Eaton’s Experience Center can operate even when the local utility grid may be impacted by an outage.

The standout display plays out two fault scenarios on a small grid that involves three local controllers and one master controller: You enter into an artificial neighborhood, complete with fake squirrels in fake trees. Suddenly, the room gets dark, a thunder rumble is heard and lightning strikes a tree that topples into an electric pole.

Scenario one plays out with no automation. The fault is triggered and the recloser fires and keeps closing, but power won’t be restored until a truck is rolled. Scenario two plays out with automation and is able to isolate the fault and restore power to the critical loads on the microgrid downstream.

Trust me, it was cool.

Animatronic show aside, it feels like we are looking at the future of the grid, not just in terms of the technology, but the mindset needed for deploying and managing distributed energy resources in ways that are much more efficient and economical than how things are done today.

— Solar Builder magazine