Illustration by Andrew Bannecker
Solar power represents the possibility of a more sustainable future. It’s low-cost. It’s virtually unlimited. It’s significantly cleaner than fossil fuels. And the sun actually drives the process that produces other sources of alternative energy: wind and ocean currents.
Yet it remains a minor energy resource in a world that consumes 97 million barrels of oil a day—and climbing. Even within the renewable energy category, there’s less solar power capacity installed than wind.
Now, thanks to an evolving regulatory environment, global demand for clean energy, and its advantages on both the industrial and consumer levels, solar is quickly catching up.
Bloomberg’s 2015 New Energy Outlook estimates that $12.2 trillion will be invested globally in power generation by 2040. Renewables are expected to make up two-thirds of that investment, with a significant amount going to solar. The report also predicts that the U.S. will install 461 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2040 while Europe will build 80% more capacity over the next 25 years. The Asia-Pacific region will add more energy capacity in the next 25 years than the rest of the world combined—including 989 gigawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) in China alone.
“Solar is clearly growing quickly,” says Scott Graybeal, senior vice president of Energy at Flex, the global sketch-to-scale™ design, engineering, and manufacturing company. Last September, as part of its portfolio of alternative energy solutions, Flex acquired the Fremont, California–based PV systems company NEXTracker, which specializes in designing and building innovative single-axis solar trackers.
Our goal is to make solar the largest source of energy in the world, says Shugar.
For companies trying to find their place in the sunny future of the renewable energy industry, success can be a moving target—literally. That’s why NEXTracker has engineered a mechanism that builds on the idea of following the sun to maximize power production. As the sun moves across the sky, electronic sensors trigger the movement of a lightweight steel bracket that changes the position of the solar panels in large arrays, increasing the panels’ sun-grabbing capabilities over other types of solar trackers.
“Our system creates more energy because it tracks across a wider range [than other tracking systems], from early in the morning to late in the afternoon,” says Dan Shugar, CEO of NEXTracker.
While solar trackers take up more space than typical arrays, they help boost power output by up to 40% over stationary solar panels, GTM Research reports. Even though solar tracking itself is not new, NEXTracker, as the name suggests, has taken the technology to the next level. Part of the science of tapping into the sun’s potential is a matter of simplifying solar-tracking products themselves.
NEXTracker’s design for the self-powered solar tracker, known as the NX Horizon, makes it easy to clean, reduces maintenance costs, and requires less steel compared to other trackers. Its controller runs on a dedicated solar panel, so the device can be installed anywhere—even far from electric power lines. Since the NX Horizon operates on a smart communications platform, data plays a vital role in optimization.
Graybeal says Flex’s acquisition of NEXTracker was about more than just buying a new piece of technology to add to the product mix. “We looked at it as a smart, connected solution that aligns with the company’s overall strategy,” he says. “It is a platform that could, in real time, affect the performance of a power plant through software updates. We’re building on that capability today so that eventually we can go site by site and figure out the optimal generation for each one, then program the tracker so it can take advantage.”
NEXTracker is considered one of the most innovative companies in its field. In 2016, the company was nominated for an Edison Award in energy and sustainability, an honor that celebrates the products, people, and companies that embody Thomas Edison’s spirit of invention and creativity.
“We have reimagined how one does tracking, and we’ve been rewarded by customers around the world,” says Shugar. Projects include installations of up to 1.85 gigawatts’ worth of trackers in Latin America for leading solar engineering and construction firms.
Read more at Flex’s Intelligence Magazine .