Driven by the 100 GW by 2022 solar power target and increasing environmental concerns, solar power generation has been growing at a rapid pace. It has progressed from being an alternative source of energy to competing with mainstream sources of power, both in terms of energy generation and cost effectiveness. This is on account of the continuous fall in the price of solar components and extensive research and development (R&D) in this area. While most innovations in the solar industry have been focused on enhancing conversion efficiency, developers and installers have lately been experimenting with other solutions to enhance the overall plant efficiency.
In this context, NEXTracker, a US-based independent subsidiary of Flextronics International Limited, has gained a significant presence worldwide. The company provides tracking solutions to solar plants to help increase the energy generated by the installation.
Founded in 2013, the solar tracking company was acquired by Flextronics in September 2015 for $330 million. NEXTracker has so far installed trackers for 7 GW of projects in Chile, Australia, Brazil, Uruguay, India, China, and across Europe. In August 2016, it acquired BrightBox Technologies, a software developer of predictive modelling technologies. With this acquisition, it has forayed into advanced diagnostics and real-time control of solar tracking systems.
The company entered the Indian market in August 2015 with a 400 MW tracker supply agreement with PES Engineers Private Limited. The timing was opportune. The solar market in the country was witnessing a sharp upswing in installations and investments, which worked to the company’s advantage. NEXTracker is currently working with six developers on about 20 projects in India, which are either at the commissioning stage or at advanced stages of installation. These include 105 MW of solar plants for Adani Power in Punjab and 30 MW for CleanMax Solar in Tamil Nadu. In order to cater to the increasing demand for tracking solutions in the Indian market, NEXTracker has, moreover, decided to set up a manufacturing unit near Bengaluru.
Technology development and innovations
NEXTracker offers a unique product, NX Horizon, which it claims is up to 5 per cent more efficient than conventional trackers, while being price competitive. NX Horizon is a horizontal single-axis, balanced-mass tracker with independently driven rows and a 120 degree axis. These systems are compatible with all major foundation types including driven pier, concrete foundation and ground screw. The balanced design uses less steel, reducing the need for pier foundations by almost 30 per cent. Moreover, the trackers are field assembled with self-grounded and self-powered technology. This further economises labour and material costs.
Besides being lubricant-free, these trackers are equipped with wireless communication facilities, which allow operations and maintenance (O&M) from any part of the world. They also allow significant savings in O&M by eliminating the use of wires. From an O&M perspective, row independence is an important consideration because it enables more flexible layouts and easier access between rows. In addition, decentralised trackers enable a system to optimise land use and install more photovoltaic (PV) cells, thereby increasing the plant’s power output.
To further enhance the gains from trackers and reduce damage costs, the company engages rigorously in R&D. A notable outcome has been the tracker asset intelligence, which allows trackers to function as flood stow systems. With this, it is possible to detect programmable flood depths through self-powered ultrasonic sensors. For example, plants installed with intelligent trackers in Virginia and North Carolina were hit by hurricane Matthew in 2016. The balanced design and component evaluation feature of NX Horizon played a big role in protective maintenance. On detecting the storm, the trackers were placed into stow at 30 degrees in anticipation of strong winds and the systems were protected from damage occurring due to floods.
Key challenges and outlook
The challenges faced by the company are of two broad types: those that are generic to the industry and those that are specific to India. The cost of deploying tracker solutions adds 15-20 per cent to the capital expenditure of a solar power plant. Initially, when solar PV panels were expensive, it was important to use trackers to minimise the number of panels used in a system with a given power output. But with panels getting cheaper, the cost effectiveness of using trackers versus a greater number of panels has also decreased substantially.
In addition, solar tracking companies claim that the O&M cost for a tracking device is zero, but it is often more expensive than the traditional fixed rack. “Trackers are more complex than fixed racking systems. This means that typically more site preparation is needed, including additional trenching and grading. All this adds to the total cost of a project, making it unattractive for the developer to use trackers. Thus, optimal pricing to make the product attractive and efficient has been a constant struggle for NEXTracker,” says Dan Shugar, founder and chief executive officer, NEXTracker.
Along with the cost factor, which remains a strong deterrent in the Indian market as developers struggle to raise finances for projects, land availability and acquisition are the other major challenges faced by the company. Unlike other countries, in India, there is not only scarcity of land owing to the rising population, but also complex legalities involved in its acquisition. Moreover, most of the solar projects are rooftop based, where space is limited, thus decreasing the chances of tracker installation.
Although the adoption of tracker technology was low initially, it is now being preferred in new projects as developers are becoming more confident of their benefits. As per industry estimates, the cumulative capacity of projects with solar trackers will increase by 7.5 GW to reach 12.6 GW by end-2017. This is likely to increase further to 37.7 GW by 2021. In addition, single-axis trackers continue to dominate the market along with utility-scale installations. “Developers are more inclined towards single-axis trackers as the space and the finance required are less than those for dual systems. In line with this, NEXTracker has been increasing its presence across the globe along with making heavy investments in R&D,” says Shugar.
In India, NEXTracker has almost doubled its capacity at its Hyderabad office since 2015. It has scaled up rapidly and is looking to capture a significant portion of the emerging opportunities. In March 2017, it announced its plans to manufacture additional structural components for its products in India. It is also tying up with APL Apollo Tubes along with four other local steel fabricators, which are already supplying foundation piers to NEXTracker and its customers in India. With this, the company is aiming to increase its local steel content percentage to over 80 per cent by volume and weight of its final product. As steel tubes and piers account for a sizeable portion of the system’s structural cost and weight, localised production of these parts will reduce shipment time by almost 50 per cent, besides bringing down logistics costs. Lower costs will enable NEXTracker to offer tracking solutions at more competitive prices. Thus, with a clear focus on technology, a flexible business model and competitive prices, NEXTracker seems well placed to expand both in the