PV Pointer: Why mass-customized solutions win in utility-scale solar

SunLink

SunLink started designing solar mounting systems in 2004 when the concept of commercial rooftop solar was novel. The first systems were custom designed for the particular application because everything was new. Needless to say these first arrays were inordinately expensive by today’s standards, but the success of those installations helped pave the way for a booming distributed energy economy.

The early rooftop systems were engineered as a single structure where every solar module was linked together, efficiently distributing wind loads. In fact, SunLink’s name was inspired by the structural links holding the system together, which is how our Precision system still works.

Solar, however, is relentlessly cost competitive. Smaller installations can’t absorb the soft cost of custom engineering. At the same time, no two solar projects are the same, which on the surface mandates custom engineering. Mass customization can make customization at scale cost effective.

What is mass customization?

I often use Legos to describe mass customization. The Legos are standard, but you can configure the blocks to build whatever you want. Here are a few examples of this approach working in utility solar.

Take a single-axis tracker. The tracker needs to be engineered for a wide range of environmental conditions and any row length (since string length varies by project and space constraints require partial rows). This could lead to countless combinations of torque tube lengths and thicknesses. In a mass customized solution, a half dozen or so standard torque tubes are configured to meet the unique needs of the project. Limiting the number of parts greatly increases supply chain and engineering efficiency.

Similarly, the number of foundations can be increased to boost load capacity without designing a new part. Cleverly designed module mounting hardware accommodates the most common PV modules with no changes. The unique nature of solar sites is designed into products so that manufacturers can respond to opportunities quickly, cost-effectively, and with a fully-vetted solution. SunLink’s TechTrack dynamic stabilization feature is an example, which is a new tool for efficiently configuring resistance to wind loads.

Innovative manufacturers are moving beyond traditional racking and into software and services. In doing so the focus shifts from catering to the unique needs of the project to the unique needs of the customer, yet the benefits of mass customization remain.

PV Pointers: How dynamic systems increase the value of a solar project

As an example, SunLink recently launched product packages to complement its mounting systems. What differentiates the product packages is that they integrate hardware, software and services to serve a customer’s specific needs. The TechTrack Standard Package, Cold Weather Package and Pro Package allow for standardized solutions for common needs while giving the customer choice in what to pay for.

The product packages are analogous to the options available when buying a car. Paint color, drivetrain and interior options cater to different customers, but all are built from the base model car.

Mass customization also guides the development of software. Different modules are implemented depending on whether the user is an O&M provider, an EPC or a developer. The best systems are highly flexible with provisions to connect to a wide variety of data monitoring systems, device types, SCADA implementations, etc., because inverters, trackers, storage systems and other intelligent hardware are constantly changing, as are the requirements of the utility and the ISO.

Modern communication protocols are critical to strong yet flexible systems. Modbus, developed in the late ’70s and early ’80s, is still the most common protocol for energy devices and SCADA systems. It should be no surprise, however, that a 30-year-old protocol isn’t up to the task of two-way communication between thousands of modern intelligent devices and numerous software services. Worse still, many software packages have limited ability to communicate with other applications. If you want to look at the performance of a solar portfolio but have several data monitoring systems, you may be forced to print reports from each system and manually input the data into a spreadsheet. This is a failure of technology.

In tech, RESTful API enables efficient, flexible communication between devices and services and allows developers to build applications leveraging other applications. We’re now seeing APIs used in inverters, trackers, data monitoring systems and initiatives like Orange Button for bankability data to unlock new value in the energy industry.

Mass-customized solutions win in utility solar because they drive down cost while accommodating the needs of the project and customer. The next time you are looking at the design of a solar plant, or anything else for that matter, I encourage you to consider what’s led the products to be standardized, customized or mass customized.

As Director of Project Management, Patrick Keelin helps define SunLink’s next generation of products and services. His focus includes dynamic tracker design, IoT and the role technology plays in R&D, design and long-term solar project economics.

— Solar Builder magazine

Soltec donates meals over the holidays through Chains of Gratitude campaign

soltec

Soltec, a manufacturer and supplier of single-axis solar trackers and related services, partnered with Feeding America to donate over 55,000 meals to families in need during the Thanksgiving season. To mark this donation, the company launches its Chain of Gratitude campaign to contribute on behalf of its customers.

“Soltec has had a successful year supplying 1.1 gigawatts of solar trackers, and we believe it’s our turn to give back,” says Soltec CEO Raúl Morales. “That’s why we will donate 1.1 ‘mega ounces’ (31.18 tons) of food through our Chain of Gratitude initiative. It’s a small way to thank our customers for their continued trust.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 46 million impoverished Americans — that’s 1 in 8 people — face hunger in the U.S. As the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, Feeding America provides 4.2 billion meals a year through its network of 60,000 food pantries and meal programs. Soltec’s hunger-relief effort will be directed to communities in greatest need across the country.

Soltec’s Chain of Gratitude campaign is part of a greater philanthropic effort that also includes supplying solar modules to power four disaster relief shelters in Puerto Rico as part of the Solar Saves Lives campaign led by SEIA and the Clinton Foundation.

Q&A: Does your solar business have the insurance coverage it needs?

— Solar Builder magazine

Soltec trackers start to serve Australian solar market with new office

soltec trackers

Soltec, a leading manufacturer and supplier of single-axis solar trackers and related services in large-scale projects, is expanding to serve Australia with an office in Sydney. The new office will execute on Soltec‘s activities in the southern country, including project equipment supply that leverage Soltec’s 14 years’ history as PV tracking specialist.

Following on our customers’ successes in the Americas and about 2 GW supplied or underway, Soltec is leading in regional markets there. The company continues to execute its plan to invest in growing markets and expand supply capacity globally.

Soltec is a global supplier with regional operations that invest in local people and facilities to benefit both project successes and the local economy. The new subsidiary, registered as Soltec Australia Pty Ltd at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, rejoins APAC regional activity with the Soltec team in New Delhi, India.

“Australia is a pioneering country in renewable energy, especially in PV, and market economics are now favoring the follow-through to realization,” said CEO of Soltec Raúl Morales. “We are finding excellent response to Soltec’s SF7 tracker product combined with Soltec’s proven partnership reliability to make large-scale projects happen.”

The SF7 tracker is a mature standard product that enables cost-effective installation, operation, and innovation. Soltec is strategically prepared for large-scale project supply challenges with a 2.5 GW annual manufacturing capacity and the Solhub global supply system that assures product quality and project supply timeliness.

Case study: Prepping solar tracker systems in advance of a hurricane

— Solar Builder magazine

Soltec shows 200 percent growth in 2017, ranks third globally in solar trackers

Soltec PV plant in Mexico

Soltec, a manufacturer and supplier of single-axis solar trackers and related services, has installed its trackers all over the globe for more than a decade now but the company says 2017 was its best year so far, showing over 200 percent revenue growth.

The strategic move to the United States in 2015 has consolidated with additional market share in 2017, amid market uncertainties and strong competition. Four power plants across the U. S. feature Soltec’s tracking equipment, totaling 229 MW. Soltec enjoys strong momentum as a large-scale supplier going into the ITC build-out through 2020.

In parallel, Soltec’s leadership in Brazil skyrocketed in 2017 with supply contracts totaling 517 MW. Local product content played an important role in this achievement, thanks to Soltec investments in local people and manufacturing facilities that benefit both the customer project and the local economy.

“Providing high-grade customer experience and results with innovative factory approaches and cost-effective standard product application has proven a success, and has pushed Soltec to the leading position,” said Carlos Mena, Country Manager Brazil.

With these figures, Soltec is ranked by analysts in third-place of the global PV tracker estimated supply market in 2017, rising from sixth-place in 2016, and ranking as the number one European tracker supplier in 2017. These achievements exhibit the result of Soltec investments in 2016 to increase manufacturing capacity to 2.5 GW per year and to prepare for large-scale project supply challenges.

According to CEO of Soltec Raúl Morales, “repeating customers rely on us as project partners due to our ability to meet schedule, cost, and quality criteria. Our record-breaking growth is testament to the dedication of Soltec’s global team focused on large-scale supply capacity, cost-effective innovation, and technical leadership.”

— Solar Builder magazine

Case study: Prepping solar tracker systems in advance of a hurricane

Flood clearance_Virginia_Hurricane Matthew Oct2016_2 - Copy

When the U.S. government declared a state of emergency in advance of Hurricane Irma’s arrival on Sept. 8, we knew what was at stake for the 33 NEXTracker solar projects (or 24,000 tracker rows) that would be affected by the impending high winds and flood waters. Although our experience with the destructive winds and torrential rains of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 gave us full confidence that our systems would stand up to Irma’s fury, our NX services team nevertheless sprang into action to ensure our customers were fully prepared.

Monitoring Irma’s strength and direction, the NEXTracker services team contacted all our affected customers in the projected path of the storm in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. One of those customers, GroSolar, had installed approximately 50 MW of NEXTracker NX Horizon systems, some of which were likely to be impacted by Irma. Tom Lyman, GroSolar’s director of project management, was apprehensive. There was good reason for his concern. From a technical standpoint, unlike thunderstorms or synoptic winds, hurricanes are large, cyclonic events subject to radical changes in wind direction and speed, depending on the location and trajectory of the storm.

For GroSolar and the other customers in Irma’s path, we leveraged our Digital O&M remote monitoring and control capabilities to ensure that each of several thousand tracker rows were appropriately buttoned down for the storm. Thanks to inclinometers on every tracker row, NEXTracker was able to remotely confirm that each tracker had been stowed to the safest angular position ahead of the brunt of the storm. We also placed local field service teams on high standby alert to be ready for any contingencies.

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With the trackers secured against wind, attention turned toward potential flood impacts. NEXTracker systems are inherently optimized for flood conditions, with all drive and control components located high above ground level. “Once we visually confirmed that all was secure, and electricals were out of possible flood zones, I felt much better,” Tom told me later. “With the proper positioning of the trackers and the ongoing attention from the NEXTracker service team, we weathered the storm with no damage to those systems whatsoever.”

Once the storm passed and the grid came back online, the GroSolar solar farms quickly resumed power generation. Our team at NEXTracker’s Remote Operations Center (ROC) verified that all trackers had returned to their normal operating mode with no damage or performance issues, and concluded that no service personnel needed to be dispatched to perform visual inspections at the sites.

In Irma’s case, there was less flooding, but had there been, we were confident in NX Horizon’s survival, as our affected systems came through 2016’s Hurricane Matthew with zero damage. With Matthew, the NEXTracker sites in Virginia and North Carolina were unharmed by the high winds, and none of the drive and electrical components came into contact with rising waters due to the aforementioned ground clearance.

Marty Rogers is SVP of Asset Management and Global Services with NEXTracker. This was originally posted on the NEXTracker blog.

— Solar Builder magazine