Imagining What’s Next: The Continuous Innovation Engine Keeps Humming at NEXTracker

By on June 22, 2017

Prior to NEXTracker’s founding in 2013, PV tracker-based systems accounted for a relatively small share of solar projects globally. The promise of single-axis tracking (SAT) was clear—no other technology could come close to increasing a PV plant’s output by some 20–30%. Yet relatively little innovation was taking place to enable mainstream penetration of trackers. NEXTracker’s emergence changed that dramatically, as we reimagined how a tracker could be implemented—at far lower cost, with greater flexibility, ease of installation, and higher performance. 

From the very beginning, innovation has been a pillar of NEXTracker’s brand. A PV systems OEM with a Silicon Valley heart and mindset, our early tagline “Advancing the Power Plant of the Future” carried us through an impressive string of industry firsts, from 80-plus module rows to self-grounded, self-powered structures and much more. Four years and more than 8 GW of NEXTracker SAT sales later (resulting in the number-one global market share position), many folks are asking, where does NEXTracker go from here?  

It’s an opportune time to have this conversation, with Intersolar North America, one of our biggest annual tradeshows, right around the corner. We traditionally showcase our latest and greatest inventions at this event, and I’m excited to report that this year will be no exception. Indeed, customers have lofty expectations of NEXTracker at these tradeshows, and I’ve been repeatedly told that our booth is one of the places on the show floor where they absolutely expect to see something new. 

There’s no doubt that the SAT landscape has changed dramatically in the last few years. Many competitors have emerged, leading to increasing price pressure and highly optimized structural designs (structural steel represents the bulk of an SAT’s cost). In such an environment, very little is left on the table in terms of material usage, and the industry may be reaching a point of diminishing returns in physical optimization. Since I wear the marketing, product management and corporate strategy hats at NEXTracker, I spend a lot of time thinking about maintaining differentiation and how to spur the next leg of growth for an innovation-focused company in a commoditizing product space.  

Historical patterns offer some insight. Independent row (decentralized) tracker designs like NEXTracker’s were largely made possible by the miniaturization and massive cost reduction of digital control electronics. The shift to decentralized control brought big advantages in system layouts, tracking accuracy and redundancy. NEXTracker’s self-powered controller innovation took this a step further with wireless communication on each tracker row, facilitating data monitoring at a granular level and providing asset managers with unprecedented visibility into tracker operations.

Just as the cost of digital hardware has plummeted, we are also seeing an analogous revolution in the cost and efficiency of data processing. Machine-learning techniques are being applied to massive data sets, resulting in extraordinary insights and capabilities. We hear about how these breakthroughs are disrupting industry after industry, and solar is no exception. Software, data and integrated intelligence are the new frontiers in solar technology, enabling a reinvigorated focus on the performance and long-term operation aspects of PV systems.

It may seem strange to find a tracker company at the center of this solar data science revolution. NEXTracker acquired a machine-learning software company, BrightBox Technologies, in May 2016. Since then we’ve been busy laying the groundwork for a whole new class of intelligent, integrated solutions that enhance asset owner value. Our parent company Flex has also played a pivotal role in this effort, with its connected intelligence platform. Advanced predictive control capability from the BrightBox team is being layered onto Flex’s secure, NERC-CIP compliant data pipeline and storage infrastructure, resulting in an immensely powerful platform that will extend tracker system functionality. 

The first applications of this technology will be focused on increasing the energy yield of our trackers for both new and existing customers.  NEXTracker has solved this with a revolutionary new control system that we will be launching at Intersolar. I can’t go into details here, but we created a quick teaser video to pique your interest.

System operations and maintenance will also benefit greatly from advanced data science. Thanks to NEXTracker’s decentralized yet wirelessly connected architecture, each tracker row can be thought of as a networked data collection node. We are already monitoring data from hundreds of thousands of tracker rows around the world, measuring real-time operation of minute components on each of those rows. This cascade of data opens the possibility of applying predictive analytics techniques to discern patterns, stay ahead of maintenance issues, and optimize truck rolls. Here’s a link to our latest white paper addressing this issue.

An early taste of this can be found in the huge solar power plant we’re supplying in Mexico. Our new SCADA system will provide a consolidated access point where thousands of real-time data parameters can be monitored. It offers secure bidirectional communication and enables enhanced data collection, storage and analytics, letting operators diagnose issues and globally manage operating parameters as they see fit. Even more importantly, it serves as a platform to facilitate future plant-wide upgrades and enhancements such as the new control strategies discussed above.

But differentiation is not just about products and technology. It’s also about going above and beyond our primary role as an OEM, closely collaborating with customers, helping them manage their portfolios more effectively, and doing whatever it takes to help them achieve the best results over the lifetime of their projects. It’s about leveraging the unparalleled expertise and track record of our team, taking advantage of a flexible global supply chain, and providing solid, long-term bankability in a rapidly maturing market sector. In short, it’s about trust—another of NEXTracker’s brand tenets.   

We’re excited about the newest additions to the NEXTracker product suite, and we’re looking forward to sharing our latest innovations at Booth 9611 at Intersolar North America, which takes place July 11–13 at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. See you there!

Visit NEXTracker at booth 9611 at Intersolar North America in San Francisco – July 11 – 13