In 2013, 40% of new utility-scale solar projects used solar tracking systems to optimize the performance of photovoltaic (PV) panels. In 2017, that number is expected to grow to about 80%. Simply put, solar trackers are quickly becoming the new normal for utility-scale solar projects. As this trend continues, the solar industry will turn its attention more and more to tracker uptime and operation and maintenance (O&M) costs. The quality, reliability, and operational longevity of solar trackers will soon become a deciding factor for solar asset owners and financiers alike.
Solar Tracker Landscape and Design Considerations
Due to the growing trend of solar tracker deployment, many new tracking vendors have entered the market in the past few years, creating a crowded and saturated landscape. While all trackers are manufactured to accomplish the same goal – track the sun from east to west to maximize productivity and power generation from PV panels – the design, mechanical components, and load relief approaches can vary greatly. With this, the reliability of the tracking systems available on the market also varies.
One of the biggest differences between tracker architectures is the amount of electrical and electromechanical components required to operate the system. For example, decentralized trackers rely on 167x more components per MW than centrally linked trackers. While the field experience with decentralized trackers is still limited, as trackers become a larger piece of the overall solar asset O&M pie, this difference will be looked at in deeper consideration by solar investors and financiers.
Future Impact on O&M Costs
As mentioned in GTM’s recent report, The Global PV Tracker Landscape 2016: Prices, Forecasts, Market Share and Vendor Profiles, “The effect of decentralized trackers on O&M relative to centralized trackers remains to be fully understood. Increased part counts theoretically result in higher preventive maintenance requirements.”
Currently trackers are seen as less of an O&M concern than modules and inverters, in terms of sensitivity around reliability. This is most likely a result of the high volume of centrally linked trackers currently commissioned in comparison to decentralized trackers. Trackers have historically only accounted for <5% of O&M costs at any given utility-scale site, so they are more of an afterthought in the analysis when designing a site. As the operation experience of decentralized trackers increases, the tracker-related percentage on O&M costs will grow and eventually become a figure that will not be easily ignored or overlooked.
Trackers are essentially the foundation of a utility-scale solar plant and their reliability affects energy production, uptime, and O&M costs. Solar trackers can significantly impact the economics of a project. In the near future it will become increasingly important for solar asset owners and investors to take tracker reliability into consideration. For tracker vendors, providing proven reliability and overall bankability of their systems will be a critical differentiator moving forward.