Intersolar North America 2014: A better tracker mousetrap

By on July 17, 2014



NEXTracker CEO Dan Shugar rhapsodizes about his new company’s multigigawatt opportunity

-Tom Cheney
With more than a quarter-century in the solar biz, Dan Shugar doesn’t have to count his years of photovoltaic experience in dog years. But the ol’ dog does have a few new tricks up his sleeve. After a run as CEO of low-concentrator PV firm Solaria, the one-time president of pioneering solar integrator Powerlight now leads NEXTracker, a Solaria spinout company that has devised a fresh take on the horizontal tracking system concept. I caught up with the slightly grizzled industry vet during the recent Intersolar North America tradeshow.

Dan has seen first hand the evolution of “mega” projects since the early 1990s from hundreds of kilowatts to megawatts to hundreds of megawatts, and his latest gig seems to be the one that finally gets him to gigawatts. His company has landed a huge deal with SunEdison to supply 1.85GW of the new-gen trackers over the next three years. The early fruits of the relationship are already on display via the thousands of NEXTrackers equipped with SUNE Silvantis modules following the sun at the 73MW “merchant” project in northern Chile. He told me that the company shipped >100MW of systems last quarter, as it ramps up its multiple production sites closer to their 30MW cumulative weekly capacity.

He explained that his team (which includes several former Powerlighters) “wanted to clean sheet the horizontal track design, to come up with a better mousetrap.” The engineers crawled up every nook and cranny of existing tracker units, looking for ways to enhance the concept. He cited several areas where the current linked-row trackers could improve, such as the layout constraints in PV plant design, an excessive number of foundations, copious use of steel, and the stress on the motor drive caused by the carrying of the module mass above the axis of rotation.

As he described the NEXTracker innovations and value proposition, Dan’s “solar as game-changer” evangelical zeal and prodigious persona was in full effect. He started ticking off the benefits of the new lower-cost, GPS-enabled system. A center-mass, distributed architecture-like design that facilitates a higher rotational angle and thus the ability to deploy of 33% more modules per tracker row than conventional systems (80 vs. 60 modules) and, as a result, uses one-third fewer foundations or piers. Independent row layouts that facilitate more megawatts per site (be gone, rectilinearity!) and lead to easier operations and maintenance access within the arrays, allowing for more frequent cleaning without increasing the washing budget. A flexible design, though ready for “normal” adverse weather conditions, which can be optimized for very high wind or heavy snow load regions.

The NEXTrackers are the first self-grounding trackers on the market, a point of special emphasis and pride for Dan. The design includes a proprietary grounding fastener that electrically bonds the module to the rail and eliminates the need for traditional fasteners. The EPCs evidently love this feature: No more leads, lugs, bare copper wires, ground straps, and the like, resulting in simplified installation and savings of about a penny per installed watt (or a few bucks per module) in materials and labor. With a lower parasitic load and other features, the new-fangled trackers also consume far less energy than the traditional systems, about a tenth of the norm of 500KWh per megawatt per year, he said.

As the SunEd deal underscores, the NEXTrackers have quickly achieved bankability. This bodes well for Dan and his band, as many of the major developers and EPCs have already moved to a more tracker-centric strategy. His company analysis finds the total addressable worldwide market for horizontal trackers at about 10.15GW, or 56% of the ground-mount utility-scale pie in 2014. In the years ahead, the projections show a growing percentage of trackers deployed in the utility space, reaching about two-thirds of the market by 2018. The Americas, rich in high irradiation areas where the trackers achieve the best kilowatt-per-kilowatt-hour bang for the buck, look like a 3GW-plus opportunity this year.

For a guy who used to celebrate the completion of a few hundred kilowatt system back in the day, the gigawatt-scale pipeline and warm reception for his high-performance tracker mousetrap has the Shugarman feeling on top of the world.