Solar engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) companies have all too often been forced to choose solar components for projects as a function of what is available in a given timeframe rather than what is preferred. While cost may not be a great issue in these cases, making all the parts work — and providing warranties on the full system — can be harder to deliver.
Trina Solar is targeting the inefficiencies of disjointed solar procurement for commercial and industrial EPCs with its TrinaPro division, announced last year, and now operating in the United States and Europe. By matching its own panels with its own trackers — via the company’s acquisition of NClave last year — and providing the remaining balance of system (BoS) through strategic relationships with companies like Enphase, Solectria and SunGrow for inverters — Trina has taken procurement to a new level of vertical integration.
Solar distributors have long sought to provide single-source solutions for EPCs, like Shoals, in particular, which offers its Big Lead Assembly wiring solution along with First Solar panels and Array Technologies trackers. While Shoals does not manufacture either panels or trackers, there is a financial link between Shoals and Array, which is an investment position in both companies by Oaktree Capital Management.
Trina, on the other hand, can schedule the delivery of both panels and trackers with monolithic upstream planning as well as stockpile material for rapid deployment. The company is targeting the heart of the C&I market, focusing on projects ranging from 0.5 MW to 5 MW.
“We can see the PV demand road map three to five years down the road,” says Steven Zhu, the president of Trina’s America Region, based in San Jose, along with the U.S. TrinaPro unit. “Small EPCs and developers lack purchasing power and therefore just buy whatever they can find available in the market. We select the best products to match our modules to serve them. We can reduce design costs by standardizing integrated solutions.”
TrinaPro can also boost ROI thanks to the bundling of all necessary components and associated services into one package, such as optimized pairing, installation and support as well as custom drawings, structural designs and permits.
“We have an engineering workforce and are developing a roadmap to keep improving product compatibility, supply management, system product guaranty and topping it off with our one-stop warranty service,” Zhu says. “We will keep on improving our ability for product compatibility, system performance, supply planning and risk, buyer’s credit, package bankability, etc., so we can better help our customers and their projects.”
Zhu believes none of these tasks can be solved as efficiently as possible if the customer is handling their own purchasing. Trina is also working closely with the banks to do one whole package bankability study instead of one for each component.
Yanking your supply chain
Trina may have started off with a modest segment of the PV market to activate its TrinaPro unit, but the company clearly has greater supply ambitions. Zhu sees similar challenges ahead for large EPCs, which have robust engineering workforces and construction resources but do not control the supply chain.
“They don’t own any manufacturing and therefore don’t have a dedicated supply chain, a product road map, control over product compatibility, capacity availability or mastery of the delivery schedule,” Zhu points out. “With TrinaPro total solutions, we can give them more support to improve system design by knowing the design from the beginning, instead of changing frequently when suppliers switch their offerings.”
One leverage point for TrinaPro is that the company is only offering its half-frame bifacial panels to customers that also opt for the NClave tracker. The half-frames reduce metal cost — for a savings between 1 and 2 cents per Watt — while ensuring solid clamping capability on the sides, perhaps solving the frame-or-no-frame debate for the foreseeable future.
The bifacial boost is not easy to ignore. Bifacial designs must work with new tracker algorithms — like Trina’s Edge Computing system — that requires sensors and detection at the inverter level for total power output. Most tracker players are doing this, but combining the modules, trackers and inverters together in an integrated way is the logical end point, which Trina is now offering.
“The customer is getting a 5 to 20 percent power increase from the backside of the panel virtually for free,” Zhu says. “We appreciate the new U.S. tariff exemption for bifacial modules. With it, bifacial panels are about 1 cent more than monofacial panels, or the same cost, due to the supply and demand situation. With the old tariff, bifacial was 3 to 4 cents higher than monofacial due to the performance increase.”
TrinaPro already has scored a major project through its European unit, a 190-MW solar park in Spain, being built by the ACS Group and its subsidiary Cobra in Alcázar de San Juan. The project is expected to be completed by the end of this year. TrinaPro is supplying 560,000 TSM-PE14H multicrystalline half-cut cell modules as well as the corresponding 6,206 single-axis tracker units. The system is expected to generate 25 to 30 percent more power than a monofacial tracker system, the company notes.
In 2018, Trina shipped 9.1 GW of solar panels, representing an 8.9 percent global market share, ranking third place globally, according to GlobalData, and now manufactures modules in Thailand.
Charles W. Thurston is a freelance writer covering the solar industry from Northern California.
— Solar Builder magazine