Solar Q&A: NEXTracker’s Nava Akkineni on the latest trends in the MENA solar market

By on April 30, 2019

Read the interview with WFES here.

This interview was conducted with Nava Akkineni, NEXTracker Vice President of Emerging Markets. Nava’s tenure in solar spans over a decade as an entrepreneur and consultant covering global business development, sales, technology and operations. Having led the development of the Company’s Indian operations, Mr. Akkineni oversees the MEIAT (Middle East, India, Africa and Turkey) region and is responsible for generating gigawatts of utility-scale solar. Prior to NEXTracker, Nava co-founded several start-ups in the Telecom, Semiconductor and Solar technology industries.

What are the latest trends with solar power uptake in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region?

With falling prices and abundant sunlight and land, solar has continued to gain momentum globally and in the MENA region, which is one of the most promising emerging PV markets. NEXTracker is honoured to be the key technology partner for some of the biggest developers in the region, where it has a portfolio of 1 gigawatt across the MENA region (KSA, Egypt, Israel and Jordan), including the 405 MW Sakaka project, the first utility scale project in Saudi Arabia.

The explosion of product innovation including high efficiency panels like bifacial and half cut cells are opening up greater and greater addressable volume in the MENA power markets. BOS companies like NEXTracker are working with the module manufacturers to optimize bifacial integration, using tweaks such as higher elevations, optimized module mounting, and other albedo enhancements. This performance acceleration also fosters a parallel reduction in the entire BOS ecosystem—and the capital costs required to build it out. If bifacial means you only need 75-80% of the number of monofacial modules that would have been required for a multi-hundred-megawatt solar field, the amount of all of the other components, systems and costs—inverters, trackers, cables, land, labour and the like—can also be reduced. 

Harnessing the most resilient tracking technology and machine learning software with the lowest levelized cost of energy (LCOE), we are able to provide the full spectrum of expert services, products and installation expertise over a power plant’s lifecycle and an advanced, cybersecure software backbone that we find increases energy yield and lowers operating costs.

How are developments in energy storage impacting the solar market?

While nascent, we are watching the market closely. There are a few countries who have been early adopters of Lithium Ion solutions and we are watching those play out. We have two solutions under our energy storage technology product line, that are quite suitable for the MEIAT region: NX Drive (Lithium ion integrated containerized solution) and NX Flow (Vanadium technology).

To be honest, it’s a really exciting time to be in energy storage. In the U.S. alone, energy storage deployment practically doubled last year having installed 350.5 MW, 777 MWh — over 80% more than was deployed in 2017 in terms of megawatt-hours!  In terms of promising markets, we’re seeing California in the U.S. as the largest market for us right now but honestly, our customers in MENA, Australia and Latin America are asking us more interesting questions and showing substantial interest. This will grow as our technologies and energy storage technologies, in general, are adopted for demand generation, load shifting and arbitrage, etc.

What are the important O&M considerations to maintain efficient and profitable systems?

In speaking with customers of the region (Mustakbal in Jordan; ACWA in Dubai, EDF, Belectric, and Orad in Israel, and Sterling & Wilson in Egypt), to name a few, their key concerns revolve around O&M servicing, cleaning and the like. Inherent to our design process is serviceability and safety. What’s interesting about the NEXTracker’s engineering design process is that many of our leadership team came from the EPC and developer world. They think in terms of O&M; it’s in our DNA.

For example, our smart solar tracker, NX Horizon is a pioneering technology that incorporated independent row architecture (distributed with no central line drive) and a self-powered design. The tracker operates with no parasitic load and can be commissioned as each array is installed, which speeds up installation time. The same design concept was incorporated into our storage solutions with our unmanned enclosure for the NX Drive and fast and easy to install/ service NX Flow.

For storage, O&M providers must be able to service the whole system, whether it’s a containerized lithium ion platform or a flow battery, from the point where the DC current comes in to the system through the conversion process until the AC current leaves the system. As with smart solar O&M, monitoring, bidirectional communications and connectivity, data analytics and, increasingly, machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms will play a key role in keeping a storage system performing well and providing the owner with the expected revenue.

In the words of my colleague, Marty Rogers, who runs our global fleet of 19 GW on the service side of the house: “In many ways, the stakes are higher with storage O&M and the financial risks that must be managed are more difficult than in solar. Storage O&M is significantly more complicated than its solar sibling—involving a broader range of components and subsystems as well as power distribution and load management issues—and requires a higher level of technical training and expertise among the workforce as well.”

What future opportunities do you see for large and small-scale solar projects in the MENA region?

Renewable energy investment is scaling across the MENA region, with population increases, economic development, and an increasing need for electricity generation driving further market growth. Many countries in the area are increasingly facing the diminishing returns of subsidising and maintaining oil and other fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure, especially when compared to the decreasing cost of renewables. The region is also optimally suited for solar PV production, where we can provide the leading solar trackers, storage, software and services offerings.

We see opportunities in increasing deployment of energy storage solutions, especially with the amount of renewable energy being injected into the regional grids. Countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia are already leading the way in implementing solar-plus-storage projects, which allow better grid management of grid connected renewables and will enable further penetration into the energy mix (Middle East Solar Industry Association Solar Outlook Report 2019).

Having machine learning capability and data connectivity also affords opportunities in successful deployments of breakthrough tracker control software as a service (SaaS) like TrueCapture™, an intelligent, self-adjusting tracker control system proven to increase typical PV power plant energy by 2–6%. Other yield enhancing technologies we are hearing from our regional customers are their interest in bifacial – which we have close to one gigawatt of deployments underway.

Data connectivity also enables our growing ecosystem of NX Global Services intelligence tools including NX Data Hub, a host platform connected to the plant SCADA that is giving us – and our customers –  a clear view into the electrical and mechanical health of all of our trackers at each power plant, enhancing our real-time analysis and diagnostic capabilities, and allowing us to be more proactive on our customers’ behalf.

NEXTracker not only builds the next generation of single-axis solar trackers and energy storage solutions, but we aim to support the MENA region from beginning to end of the project lifecycle and into the promising future ahead.

What opportunities for development are presented by digital technology innovations, such as artificial intelligence and blockchain?

As I mentioned in the earlier question, one of the most exciting technologies we’ve brought to our utility scale solar developer customers is our TrueCapture smart control system. With advanced control system algorithms, we continuously optimize the tracking algorithm of each individual row in response to site features and changing weather conditions. Our team of data scientists combine advanced sensor, weather forecasting and machine-learning technologies to maximize energy yield – by up to 6% – this is quite meaningful to our developer customers over the life of the plant. With its smart data capture and model-based predictive control software, TrueCapture helps our customers maximize the benefits of their NEXTracker systems, generating more revenues with higher energy yields, better availability, and lower operating costs.

Here’s a video animation on how this works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQoOCmYjX4U&t=2s

To date, we’ve sold TrueCapture on over two gigawatts of solar power plants worldwide.

We look forward to a great year ahead for middle east solar. The World Future Energy Summit 2020 is sure to be the biggest, most sensational year to date – for NEXTracker and the solar industry. We wish the summit and all who attend a terrific show.