SB Buzz Podcast: SunLink VP on tech, data, diversity and the path forward for solar

SunLink data podcast

We sat down, with mimosas in hand at 9 a.m. on the last day of Solar Power International, with Kate Trono, VP of Products for SunLink, for an in-depth discussion on the role that data and technology will play in the future of solar and (hopefully) the grid. At some point, I also nerd it up and mention my current favorite Sci-Fi comic series.

Listen below (and be sure to subscribe!)

What to listen for

After the intro and early rambling, we dig into what Kate and SunLink are most excited to be working on right now. “From what we’ve learned from how to take our [tracker] data and how to make sense out of it, we push out more intelligence – kind of that same thing we do in product management, and we think the other technology companies could do something similar with their data, where they make it more actionable, rather than just a data feed.” The goal being more transparent data across the industry.

At the 11:30 mark, Kate shares some cool ideas on better incentivizing reliability and performance in solar. “The way solar projects are financed … there’s other things solar could do rather than just hit an agreed to energy amount … grid services that are recognized by the utility.”

At the 15-minute mark, we burrow into Kate’s imagination and see her vision of the ideal energy world and solar’s role in it. This obviously leads us into a chat about video games and the Sci-Fi we are into these days.

This SPI there was also a big focus on diversity, and we wanted to get Kate’s perspective not just as a woman in solar, but in the tech/engineering world of solar, which is one of the most white male-dominated fields. That discussion starts at the 18-minute mark.

At the 21-minute mark, I explain my fears about our technology future, and Kate tries to calm me down.

Finally, around 24 minutes, Kate tells us what she found that was new and cool at this year’s SPI.

— Solar Builder magazine

Details on new solar fixed tilt, tracker Pro packages from SunLink

SunLink Corp. is offering new packages for its GeoPro fixed tilt and TechTrack Distributed single axis tracker products. The goal is to provide EPCs and developers with increased product pricing transparency and greater customization to meet the unique needs of the full spectrum of solar projects.

“Today’s sophisticated solar customers are looking for a solutions partner that can provide increased value on a growing diversity of solar projects,” said Kate Trono, vice president of products at SunLink. “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution that can effectively be applied to every project. The new GeoPro and TechTrack Distributed product packages empower customers with choice and flexibility by delivering highly engineered products bundled with value-added services and technology that maximize their investment on every project in their portfolio.”

New GeoPro Product Packages

sunlink racking

Key benefits of the GeoPro product include:

  • Foundation flexibility for soils of all types with W-Posts, Groundscrews, Helical Piles, cast in place ballast, or a hybrid of solutions
  • Terrain following to minimize site grading at an industry-leading 20% East-West
  • Ability to co-locate with TechTrack Distributed to optimize a site’s energy density on projects with varying levels of complexity. One engineering team for seamless layout and uniform application of consistent standards and geotech testing, saving time and money

GeoPro will now come in two product packages:

  • Standard Package which includes world-class engineering, stamped structural packages, and project management support to ensure success on every size project
  • Speed Package which bolsters the standard package with the inclusion of components specially designed for maximum adjustability, and delivery of ready-to-install, pre-assembled parts. Perfect for projects where installation efficiency is the top priority.

Mounting Pressure: Today’s large-scale PV boom demands new levels of service from racking companies

New TechTrack Distributed Product Packages

SunLink

  • Intelligent operating modes optimize performance for ever-changing environmental conditions including wind, snow and flood
  • The proprietary Dynamic Stabilization feature efficiently redistributes loads, allowing the tracker system to handle extreme wind with less steel, fewer foundations and lower cost
  • The Virtual Pivot creates 120-degree accurate tracking to maximize generation potential while eliminating dead space and enabling superior terrain following
  • ETL certification to UL 2703 and UL 3703 standards
  • Foundation counts and section size counts are consistently the lowest in the industry, reducing steel costs and on-site sequencing headaches

TechTrack Distributed will now be sold in two product packages:

  • Standard Package which includes world-class engineering and project management support to ensure success on every size project, as well as commissioning support with tracker status reports from VERTEX
  •  Pro Package provides additional topographic grade following foundation analysis to minimize steel overages and ensure install tolerances; a certified commissioning team for faster interconnection and ongoing access to actionable system performance data via VERTEX

SunLink’s intelligent tracker control and performance monitoring platform VERTEX increases uptime confidence and enables more efficient O&M. VERTEX subscriptions can also be layered onto any TechTrack Distributed product package.

VERTEX provides real-time data for insights into a tracker’s tilt and its impact to energy generation, fueling the intelligent control system that auto-adjusts the tracker to wind, snow and O&M modes of operation. Beginning in 2018, TechTrack with VERTEX will reduce the cost of O&M and improve project outcomes by putting superior O&M and analytics tools in the hands of our customers.

Comprehensive Services and Support

In addition to the GeoPro and TechTrack Distributed product packages, customers may also choose to layer on Cold Weather, PowerCare geotechnical, installation or O&M services to allow them to focus on their core business while taking on more commercial and utility-scale projects. Coming into its third year, SunLink’s signature PowerCare program optimizes system design, expedites commercial and small utility completion rates and ensures the lowest tracker maintenance costs in the industry.

Here’s a handy iBook overview of the new product packages if  you’d like more info.

— Solar Builder magazine

Meet SunLink’s first chief operating officer

SunLink‘s growth continues with the appointment of its first chief operating officer, Martin Lynch. In his new role as COO, Lynch brings more than 30 years’ experience across hardware and software engineering, operations, finance, product strategy and talent development to scale and optimize SunLink’s overall operations amidst the company’s rapid growth and evolution into an energy solutions leader.

Headshot_Lynch“With a record first half of 2017 following two years of high momentum growth, it was time to name SunLink’s first chief operations officer – someone imminently qualified to help guide the company through this period of rapid expansion and our next stage of evolution,” said Michael Maulick, president and CEO of SunLink. “The depth and breadth of Martin’s global operations experience, his engineering management leadership and his ability to run a performance-driven team that understands its customers brings a proven, high caliber of talent to complement an already exceptional executive management team.”

Prior to SunLink, Lynch was responsible for worldwide engineering program management and operations at Beamreach Solar where he oversaw silicon wafer and module manufacturing, global supply chain, quality and reliability for the $250M VC-funded commercial solar module manufacturer. Lynch previously held worldwide engineering and operations executive roles at Xicato, where he led the product strategy of integrating intelligent IoT systems and power regulation into commercial LED light modules for this manufacturer of high end LED light systems; and at 2Wire (now Arris International), a world leader in DSL gateway communications where Lynch expanded operations to meet 100 percent annual growth culminating with the sale of 2Wire for $475M. Lynch also served as VP Engineering for Maxtor’s server products group where he transformed the storage product roadmap and technology for this Fortune 500 HDD manufacturer.

“I’m excited to join a truly innovative solar company poised to revolutionize the economics of the industry through breakthrough solutions utilizing a convergence of technologies that help minimize product costs, maximize production and ROI for our customers,” said Martin Lynch, chief operating officer of SunLink. “The company’s industry-leading innovations like dynamic design, intelligent sensors for analyzing tracker performance, and high-touch services through offerings like PowerCare are transforming the company into a powerhouse for next-gen solar solutions.”

Lynch holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Boston University and studied for his Master’s in Business Administration at Villanova University.

On the Scene: SunLink’s new service approach uses tech industry blueprint

— Solar Builder magazine

Solar tracking system advances: What’s the impact over the life of a PV plant?

Solar tracker photo 1

The goal of a solar tracking system is to boost the lifetime energy production of a given site, somewhere between 20 to 30 percent over a 30-year period. But this is not a “set-it-and-forget-it” proposition. Today’s tracker systems are more advanced than ever before, but they require an operations and maintenance (O&M) plan that’s just as sophisticated, if not more.

“The performance analytics of a site will become increasingly defined by O&M activities over a longer time span, as costs associated with system failure and maintenance, labor and transport are compounded,” says Denise Hugo, director of marketing with Array Technologies Inc.

If your O&M planning starts after the project is in the ground, which can happen with today’s time pressures, it is already too late. Reliable PV tracker performance starts with specing and designing the right system to match the project.

Intelligent Design

A system is only as good as its ability to exist in its environment. Beyond the obvious structural necessities required of any mounting system, tracking functionality can both improve and further complicate the plan for withstanding the elements. Some improvements are simple, like tilting opposite rows toward each other to clean two dusty rows in one pass. Others come from the sophistication of the software.

“We have seen a trend toward greater reliability in the face of the increasing intensity and frequency of weather events,” Hugo says. Array, for example, incorporated a torsion limiter in its centralized DuraTrack HZ v3, which naturally improves the stability of the system during wind events.

Array Technologies DuraTrack

“When a heavy wind occurs and wind speeds approach record highs, tracking systems can risk catastrophic failure. The best rule of thumb is to design the tracker system to withstand the full site specified wind speeds at any tilt angle, instead of relying on risky stow strategies.”

Separate UPS [uninterruptible power supply] systems proved to be problematic in early tracking days, which inspired tracker manufacturers to integrate backup power into the trackers themselves or eliminate the need for backup power entirely.

Whether a site’s climate patterns evolve over time, or experience a sudden aberrational event, tracking systems can adjust. SunLink says meteorological stations are integral to intelligent tracking systems.

“The data from these stations can be used to meet ongoing financing and operational requirements,” says Kate Trono, VP of products at SunLink.

More Motors or More Maintenance?

But as my cranky mechanic dad would say when car manufacturers would improve anything (like, going from crank windows to power windows), more sophistication can also mean “more stuff that’s going to break.” Trackers need motors and power sources, which introduce additional points of failure. The answer from tracker manufacturers is to minimize as many of those variables as possible, but which variables specifically depends on the approach of the manufacturer.

Array, a leading supplier of centralized drive tracker systems, believes in minimizing the number of motors and other high-maintenance parts that are needed as well as drawing power from the grid instead of relying on batteries.

“We use the minimum amount of electrical components required for control at each motor,” Hugo says. “Simply put, less moving parts make for fewer problems. By removing the number of smaller, less reliable motorized components and condensing this into a flexibly linked centralized single-axis tracker architecture, we have significantly improved uptime and dramatically lowered O&M costs.”

Movement is also taxing on all of a system’s components, and maintaining hardware is tedious and costly. Some tracker systems may require crews to regularly check the torque on screws or lubricate joints, which can add thousands of hours to an annual O&M budget. NEXTracker, currently the market share leader in global tracker deployments according to GTM Research, says a key in minimizing maintenance needs here is valuing mechanical tension over torqueing.

“Torqueing is by nature inexact because of the many factors that can affect friction — from surface texture to debris, rust and humidity,” says Dan Shugar, CEO of NEXTracker. “By contrast, tension involves the use of hydraulic tools to stretch screws and swage or fasten bolts to a structure. In fact, the swaging of a lockbolt is five times stronger than its nut-and-bolt counterpart fastening system. Regular nuts and bolts have a gap, which can cause loosening by vibration. System hardware that does not require torqueing but instead relies on the tension between components will reduce the need for manual checks.”

Shugar believes the key question to ask when evaluating single-axis trackers is this: Could the failure of any individual hardware component threaten the system’s overall production?

“In the case of a decentralized SAT, for example, each row’s independent motor is powered by its own dedicated solar panel (with integrated battery backup), making external power cables obsolete. This reduces the risk of asset downtime since each row is essentially its own independent system. Having advanced individual, self-powered motors control each row increases the overall resiliency of the solar plant by eliminating the risk of malfunctions that can lead to downtime for a larger portion of the installed capacity.”

Trono says decentralized trackers have gained momentum because they are actually simpler to maintain. Downtime is also minimized by holding spares, which is made possible by highly modular systems.

“No special tools or expertise is required to swap out a motor, for example, and it’s not necessary to take an entire linked-row tracker offline,” she says.

Distributed trackers also streamline engineering between the EPC and the mounting system provider, which can result in meaningful savings in soft costs.

“Consider how self-powered, wireless systems eliminate the back and forth and inevitable drawing revisions concerning connection points, conduit, etc. to each tracker,” Trono says. “Furthermore, since each tracker row is independent, they’re easy to add and remove from a layout. Changes to inverter locations and access roads stay simple rather than cascading through the layout departments of multiple companies.”

“The appropriate tracker choice, one with robust components and minimized failure points, will guarantee the best performance over time,” Hugo says. “With the increased efficiency of other BOS components, such as the inverters, highly reliable tracked projects can actually incur less total O&M costs compared to fixed-tilt.”

Data is the future

While my dad had a point — that new advances in technology create new issues — what he didn’t see was the extended benefits of improved performance. This is where data changes the game in O&M and the lifetime value of a tracking system. Smart devices and the Internet of Things means even the largest solar plants can be monitored down to the component level.

“Data is essential to deploying O&M resources efficiently,” Trono says. “Row-level tracker intelligence complements other data systems to give a complete picture of system performance.”

SunLink

There are always outlier incidents that require immediate analysis to determine if action is required. Having access to minute-by-minute tracker performance data helps system owners and their O&M partners understand when and where to place maintenance resources to manage assets effectively while keeping down LCOE. The correct course of action, though, can only come from setting up a software and O&M strategy that interprets the data correctly.

“The data that this constant monitoring produces can become overwhelming for system owners,” Shugar says. “To understand the true implications of system issues, an intelligent cloud-based O&M strategy must be developed that weighs the cost of truck rolls against possible impacts to system performance and the value of the energy produced. Just collecting data doesn’t reduce O&M costs. It’s how intelligent tracking systems and asset managers use that data that reduces truck rolls and increases long-term ROI.”

And this is the note to end on because the biggest strides to be made in solar tracker O&M going forward will be made in data and control.

“As an industry, we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to harnessing the power of integrated data and control systems,” Trono says. “Unfortunately, many data systems are siloed because of security concerns or integration challenges. In the future, we will see advanced control systems that can be used to improve the performance and future product design of both tracking and fixed-tilt systems.”

Chris Crowell is managing editor of Solar Builder.


Tracker System Profiles

DuraTrack HZ v3DuraTrack HZ v3

Array Technologies’ tracker architecture is designed to withstand the elements, not to stow. Unlike trackers that rely on active stow to attempt to survive inclement weather, the DuraTrack HZ v3 is designed to reliably handle the full site loads at any tracker angle. Array’s tracker incorporates a mechanical load mitigation system based on a unique torsion limiter gear and redundant mechanical stops. The system is automatic and doesn’t require power backup, wiring, anemometers, controllers or regularly scheduled maintenance to function, which eliminates backup systems, potential failure points and a ton of maintenance.

How does it save time and cost?

Array Technologies’ trackers are designed to deliver the lowest cost of ownership and the highest value, forged from decades of experience. DuraTrack HZ v3’s streamlined design lowers installation and O&M costs. It is built with minimal failure points and zero scheduled maintenance over a 30-year lifespan.

NX Horizon

NX Horizon

Powered by NEXTracker’s self-powered motor drive, each row of the NX Horizon system can now be built with significantly less steel and can be optimized for wider rotation angles. As a result, customers will maximize yield, pay less for O&M and reduce the impact on the environment significantly. NEXTracker designed a mechanically balanced system that has no overturning moment at the core of the NX Horizon tracker. This allows NEXTracker to bring down the number of piers needed for one row of solar panels by up to one third.

How does it save time and cost?

NEXTracker’s NX Horizon tracker needs less steel than conventional trackers, allowing for quicker installation. Customers won’t need drive shafts or extra cabling to power the trackers, speeding the process up even further. NX Horizon is self-grounded, so customers won’t have to pay costs and labor for installing grounding washers, braided straps, bare copper wire and grounding rods. Zero welding is required. NEXTracker’s patented fasteners make mounting the panels quick and easy.

TechTrack DistributedTechTrack Distributed

One of the most popular features of SunLink’s TechTrack Distributed is the balanced row bearing design or “virtual pivot.” The bearings arrive at the jobsite preassembled, and the installation team can quickly and easily bolt the assemblies to the top of the posts. The bearings then form a cradle in which to rest the torque tubes — the heaviest component in the system — during their installation. Plus, at every stage of racking assembly and module installation, the system remains balanced, eliminating the need to take precautions to restrain it from swinging. The most innovative feature of the TechTrack is Dynamic Stabilization. The design utilizes an active, sensor-enabled component to change the damping and stiffness of the structure in response to real-time environmental conditions. This dynamic design dramatically enhances load management and reduces required steel.

How does it save time and cost?

TechTrack Distributed has no gaps at the bearings or splices, which can add up to several feet on each tracker. Instead it enables clean, continuous tables of 90 modules with one small gap at each slew drive. TechTrack Distributed packs more power into a given area, maximizing the potential of the site. In addition to generous installation tolerances and the flexibility of unlinked rows, TechTrack Distributed is designed to contour with North-South changes in grade of up to 2 percent post-to-post. For example, on a site that would have required extensive grading or very long and heavy posts to keep the array flat, TechTrack has enough flexibility built in to eliminate those costs.

— Solar Builder magazine

Mounting Pressure: Today’s large-scale PV boom demands new levels of service from racking companies

Solar FlexRack

For the first time ever, in 2016, U.S. solar ranked as the No. 1 source of new electric generating capacity additions on an annual basis. In total, solar accounted for 39 percent of new capacity additions across all fuel types, and these big numbers are coming via big installs as the utility-scale segment grew 145 percent from 2015.

“In a banner year for U.S. solar, a record 22 states each added more than 100 MW,” says Cory Honeyman, GTM Research’s associate director of U.S. solar research. “While U.S. solar grew across all segments, what stands out is the double-digit gigawatt boom in utility-scale solar, primarily due to solar’s cost competitiveness with natural gas alternatives.”

The trend shows no signs of reversing, and as utility-scale solar projects continue to boom, the industry demand for material and logistical services will keep increasing pressure on suppliers like never before.

Raw materials bottleneck

“It’s a simple matter of supply and demand,” says Chuck Galbreath, VP of supply chain at SunLink. “If I have more time, I can find more options and drive down costs. When schedules are compressed and I’m forced into a tight delivery window, I have to go with the supplier who is able to deliver in the time allotted, which allows less room for negotiation.”

Others agree: “We often encounter requests for expedited finished product that can be more aggressive than the lead times from the steel mills. For our proprietary racking systems, OMCO is now maintaining a responsible level of steel inventory to support these instances,” states Todd Owen, General Manager of OMCO Solar.

The time pinch has led to more in-house manufacturing. “The top five racking manufacturers have reached economies of scale where additional volume no longer decreases price, forcing manufacturers to vertically integrate by producing more parts and material in-house,” says Paul Benvie, VP of engineering at TerraSmart.

Because the sector is so dependent upon the steel market, finished product pricing can be volatile. The recent anti-dumping lawsuits spurred market increases that were felt in all steel industries, including solar. Benvie says TerraSmart has countered the pricing roller coaster by making strategic hedge buys and leaning on suppliers to honor and hold pricing so they are capable of manufacturing product at a reliable price point.

To help combat delivery delays, more mounting companies also are establishing regional centers. “Steel delivered to and from opposite coasts can have a significant impact on costs and schedules,” Benvie says. “Strategic manufacturers have set up facilities that are centrally located and/or have different branches at opposite ends of the country. For example, TerraSmart has opened a new manufacturing facility in Columbus, Ohio, and can manufacture identical parts out of the Southeast, Southwest and New England.”

RELATED: We look at the value decentralized tracker systems bring to a project 

Timelines keep shrinking

“As the solar industry matures and adopts the more typical rigid large-scale construction approach to project schedules, timelines have been compressed and suppliers are now expected to adhere to strict, tight daily schedules,” says Nick Troia, VP of corporate quality and project management at SunLink. “It is a more professional atmosphere that in some cases is straining the less sophisticated suppliers.”

The compression is substantial: “We ask customers for a 12-week lead time, but in this market we are lucky if we get eight,” says Larry Reeves, a project manager for Array Technologies Inc. (ATI). “Schedules are crazy now.”

Seasonal variations also intensify weather constraints. “The solar industry is challenging, as many financiers, developers and EPCs push to close projects out in Q4,” Benvie says. “In New England, this can be increasingly challenging with projects kicking off as the daylight hours get shorter, temperatures drop and field conditions deteriorate.”

“Without getting into the dollars and cents, delays can be very costly, such as the triggering of liquidated damages that could accumulate at thousands of dollars per day or by hindering project completion for a tax credit deadline,” observes Troia.

Losses can be the cost of customer maintenance, too. In some of these unavoidable situations, someone involved in the project has to recognize and proactively eliminate a delay before it happens.

“We believe we are truly partners with our clients, so we commonly shoulder costs or increase productivity to minimize the sting of a delay, regardless of who caused it,” Benvie says.

Next, we look at the turnkey services and systems designed for saving time on project development.

— Solar Builder magazine