Nextracker is the leading provider of intelligent, integrated solar tracker and software solutions used in utility-scale and ground-mounted distributed generation solar projects around the world.
Nextracker provides intelligent solar tracker solutions for utility-scale and distributed generation projects to transform PV plants. It has saved 24.12 metric tons of annual CO2 emissions, as it continues the journey. NX Horizon-XTR is said to be the industry’s most advanced all-terrain solar tracker.
Hemanshu Sugandhi, Director, Business Development, Nextracker Inc., tells us more. Excerpts from an interview:
DQ: Solar trackers make financial sense when the yield gain over fixed-tilt applications outweighs the capital expenditure of the system. Elaborate.
Hemanshu Sugandhi: Solar trackers are proven to increase system output, which, unlike fixed-tilt ground-mount systems, make solar panels follow the sun’s path throughout the day. Further, bifacial module technology adoption has boosted the use case for trackers optimized for bifacial modules for improved energy yields. Through software innovation, we have been able to improve energy yields and operability over time, providing differentiated benefits to our customers.
TrueCapture, our flagship software offering is an intelligent, self-adjusting tracker control system that uses machine learning to increase typical solar power plant energy yield between 1-3% for the majority of projects.
DQ: Trackers require more maintenance than fixed systems. What is the situation at NEXTracker?
Hemanshu Sugandhi: A solar tracker will cost more money upfront than a fixed solar panel system because it is a more complex technology and has moving parts. This also leads to the second area of increased cost for solar tracking systems: maintenance.
Certain tracker technologies in the market today rely on a legacy, linked-row architecture. These systems use mechanical linkages and a single large motor to simultaneously move multiple interconnected, or “linked” rows of trackers, introducing significant single points of failure. Linked-row architectures were designed over 30 years ago around the high cost of electric motors and control systems at the time. In fact, several members of our executive team commercialized the first tracker systems.
We know first-hand that these designs do not leverage the substantial cost reductions in motors and control systems today and have limitations in optimizing performance, reliability, and operations.
Whereas, we optimize performance and operability through hardware and software integration, validated by rigorous testing and field-based measurement and verification. Our software solutions interface with our network of data-mining sensors dispersed throughout the solar plant and enable operators to optimize performance.
We take an innovative approach to ‘future-proofing’ the optimization of our trackers over time, enabling the release of improved features and capabilities to both legacy and new solar projects via future software enhancements to our separately sold software solutions.
We have tightly integrated software solutions that use advanced algorithms and artificial intelligence technologies to optimize the performance and capabilities of our tracker products. We have developed an intelligent independent-row tracking system with proprietary technology that produces more energy, lowers operating costs, and is easier to deploy compared to other tracker products.
DQ: How are you going about with site preparations for various projects across the world, and in India?
Hemanshu Sugandhi: Nextracker has built intelligent, advanced, and progressive tech-driven products that work in concert with sites that have challenging soils, high winds, undulating terrain and irregular boundaries.
Our products have resiliency built in and are engineered for undulating terrain and inclement weather and corrosion considerations. With increasing extreme weather in India in recent years, tracking systems should include fast, active stowing capabilities which do not depend on grid power, configurable stowing strategies for different types of events, and severe weather event management tools, which are adaptable to site-specific factors and incorporated into the system operator’s overall weather event preparation and response plans.
Nextracker empowers system operators with the most advanced weather event planning and response tools available through NX Navigator Premium, and the most capable and responsive active stowing functionality in the industry with NX Horizon, which includes integrated UPS for backup stowing power as standard.
The combination of NX Horizon with NX Navigator Premium arms plant operators with advanced operational tools and stowing capabilities to manage their solar assets before, during and after severe weather events. Operators of the Nextracker systems enjoy greater operational control and faster, better active stowing capability as compared to other tracking systems, especially those which are passively stowed or AC-powered.
India, being home to an extraordinary variety of climatic regions, could benefit from this intelligent technology, which is empirically validated, tested, field-proven, and designed for top performance in a wide variety of site conditions.
DQ: Elaborate on the single- and dual-axis solar trackers.
Hemanshu Sugandhi: There are several types of tracking solutions with differing geometry and operational characteristics. The majority of the market uses single-axis horizontal trackers such as our solar tracker products. Single-axis horizontal trackers offer the best optimization of performance, cost and reliability for utility-scale solar plants. Other tracking designs, such as dual-axis trackers, are typically more expensive, require considerable land volume and are primarily used for niche applications.
Single-axis solar trackers track the sun east to west, rotating on a single point, moving either in unison, by panel row or by section. Dual-axis trackers rotate on both the X and Y axes, making panels track the sun directly.
DQ: Solar trackers are slightly more expensive than their stationary counterparts, as they are regarded as complex systems with moving parts. Elaborate.
Hemanshu Sugandhi: Our solutions are designed to reduce installation costs, including grading and anchoring costs, and time to deploy and operationalize and our architecture, sensors and software are designed to reduce operating costs, optimize uptime and mitigate risks such as potential damage from severe weather. We are focused on reducing the levelized cost of energy (LCoE).
DQ: How are sensors, actuators, and control boards managed across various sites?
Hemanshu Sugandhi: The active tracker parts like motors, gears, controllers, etc are factory-sealed parts with IP ratings that avoid any ingression of dust or sand. These are highly reliable components designed to last in the field for over 25-30 years or more.
DQ: How is NX Navigator enabling power plant operators to efficiently monitor and securely control their solar assets?
Hemanshu Sugandhi: NX Navigator is a smart control system that enables power plant operators to efficiently monitor and securely control as well as protect their solar assets for increased production and reliable operation across a wide range of weather conditions. It is an intuitive dashboard that helps plant managers precisely visualize real-time operational data at the site, sub-field, and individual tracker levels.
Risk mitigation features include Hurricane/Typhoon Stow and Hail Stow modes, both of which quickly command solar panels to rotate to safe positions in response to inclement weather that might otherwise cause significant damage to solar panels. Bundled with the TrueCapture system, NX Navigator boosts solar power plant production by continuously optimizing the position of each individual tracker row in response to diverse site features.
DQ: How does it stand against PV monitoring solutions?
Hemanshu Sugandhi: PV monitoring solutions usually collect and analyze a number of parameters being measured in a PV plant to monitor its performance to forecast energy goals, whereas, Nextracker’s solutions offer customers the industry’s most comprehensive smart solar tracker portfolio and give utility-scale PV plant owners another layer of monitoring and control, increasing production yield, and enabling reliable operation across a wide range of severe weather conditions.
Our solution’s next-generation advanced remote monitoring capabilities maintain optimum tracker equipment health and availability, while its onsite active controls offer best-in-class safety defense and extreme weather risk mitigation. Featuring an intuitive graphical user interface and MapView, our NX Navigator helps plant managers monitor timely sitewide information on key parameters and mitigate extreme weather risks.
DQ: How does it stand against a PLC-based solution, relying on a tracking algorithm to locate the position of the sun?
Hemanshu Sugandhi: Nextracker uses a proprietary solar tracking algorithm that is enhanced with our industry-leading TrueCapture technology.
DQ: How is TrueCapture doing right now?
Hemanshu Sugandhi: TrueCapture’s technology continuously refines the tracking algorithm of each individual solar array in response to existing site and weather conditions. Proven to boost energy on utility-scale solar plants by 1-3%, TrueCapture enables system owners and developers to maximize solar system performance and enhance profits for solar power facilities.
Solar power plants suffer energy production losses from construction variability, terrain undulation, and changing weather. TrueCapture is actually the first tracker solution to simultaneously solve these factors, leveraging forecast-based tracking behavior algorithms for clouds, fog or haze and row-to-row (R2R) hybrid closed-loop self-learning that course corrects the panel direction to minimize production loss due to shading and clouds.
Wireless self-powered controllers on the tracker sync with the smart panels and the Nextracker SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system, connected through Flex’s IoT platform, a secure, NERC-CIP compliant, industrial-strength connected intelligence platform. From the Flex IoT platform, communication is continually dispatched to control each independent row.
DQ: How are newer models compensating for higher wind loads, etc?
Hemanshu Sugandhi: Nextracker has worked through many different scenarios to better protect your power plant by developing NX Navigator which enables solar power plant owners and operators to monitor, control, and protect their solar tracking systems. An intuitive dashboard helps plant managers to precisely visualize real-time operational data at the site, subfield and individual tracker level.
In addition, NX Navigator’s risk mitigation features quickly command solar panels to rotate to safe positions in response to inclement weather that might otherwise cause significant damage to solar panels by decreasing the impact angle and placing the PV modules into a stow position that can avoid damage.
DQ: How is the deployment in colder and snowy weather, higher altitude climates, etc?
Hemanshu Sugandhi: Our architecture, sensors and software are designed to reduce operating costs, optimize uptime and mitigate risks such as potential damage from severe weather. Independent-row architecture reduces the cost of cleaning, vegetation management and inspection operations by providing significantly easier vehicle movement along rows.
Nextracker’s systems combine multiple approaches to reduce the risk of damage while maintaining as much energy production as feasible in severe weather conditions. For example, NX Horizon along with NX Navigator arms power plant operators with advanced operational tools and defensive stowing capabilities against severe weather.
This suite of active controls offers the industry’s most robust tracker and software solution for extreme weather mitigation.
DQ: Fixed tracking systems are field-compatible that can accommodate up to 20% slopes in the E/W direction. Tracking systems bear less slope accommodation usually around 10% in the N/S direction. Elaborate.
Hemanshu Sugandhi: While fixed tilt applications can accommodate greater slope, Nextracker launched a product in 2022 called NX Horizon-XTR for extreme terrain. NX Horizon-XTR, a new variation of the industry-leading smart solar tracker NX Horizon, breaks the paradigm of ‘straight-line row’ design constraints.
XTR conforms to the natural terrain generating a series of benefits such as eliminating cut and fill earthworks, reducing pier lengths, and easing permitting, ultimately accelerating project construction schedule while saving more than time and money.
As solar power project opportunities expand into new regions and the availability of once-ubiquitous flat land becomes increasingly rare, project developers are turning to sites with sloping and undulating terrain. This presents unique risks and challenges for EPCs, which must employ costly, environmentally impactful grading and increased foundation steel, introducing budget and schedule uncertainties that can jeopardize project success.
The ‘business as usual’ approach to dealing with undulating terrain includes careful selection of tracker row locations, performing cut-and-fill grading and increasing foundation pile lengths. While proven, this approach limits system size increases construction costs and creates schedule risk.
Accuracy of cost and schedule estimates for grading activities are a known challenge, due to the possibility of unexpected soil conditions, weather delays and re-vegetation challenges. Plus, the soil disturbance from earthwork can introduce soil erosion issues during the system warranty period.
Working closely with our partners in response to this challenge, Nextracker has developed a new variant of NX Horizon which breaks the paradigm of the ‘straight-line row’ design constraint. Introducing NX Horizon-XTR, a terrain-following tracker solution that reduces earthwork and steel used by conforming to the existing ups and downs of north-south ground slope undulations.
After foundations are installed within terrain-following tolerances, NX Horizon-XTR installs with the same steps and processes as our standard NX Horizon tracker, ensuring lower labor costs and predictable construction schedules.
NX Horizon-XTR has been deployed across five GW+ of cumulative projects, with many more projects under construction or in late-stage development in the U.S. and elsewhere. Please find our new NX Horizon-XTR datasheet and see how Nextracker can help ensure successful construction on difficult sites.
It is important to note that in comparison with fixed tilt applications on power plants, for a target energy generation, the use of a tracker with bifacial technology reduces overall DC capacity – which also significantly reduces the total number of modules required for a given project. The reduced footprint with fewer modules not only improves material handling, logistics, etc., but also protects the Developer by de-risking module availability.
DQ: Nextracker has signed an agreement with Amara Raja to supply solar trackers. What are your future plans for other Indian companies?
Hemanshu Sugandhi: The solar tracker market is anticipated to register promising growth at CAGR of 18.54% in the next 10 years. Keeping this target in mind, it’s our vision to create a world powered by renewable energy – where clean, affordable power is available to all. We have already shipped over 70 GW worldwide and we aim to lead the solar industry.
As a part of our strategy to support India’s National Solar Mission (NSM) and facilitate our growth in one of the world’s most dynamic PV markets for ground-mounted installations, we are on the move to expand our local manufacturing in India. This will allow India to make the most of the country’s abundant solar energy and boost energy efficiency throughout the country.
We are committed to delivering high-performing systems to our customers, as well as supporting India’s goal to ensure that 50 per cent of the country’s energy requirement comes from renewable resources. With a gigawatt of our high-performing solar tracker systems operating on 24 projects across India and close to 200 local staff to support design and engineering, local content and manufacturing, sales and aftermarket services.
We look forward to expanding more in the market and taking an innovative approach to ‘future proofing’ the optimization of our trackers over time, enabling the release of improved features and capabilities to both legacy and new solar projects via future software upgradeability to our separately sold software solutions.
In Dec. 2022, Amara Raja Power Systems selected Nextracker to supply solar trackers for NTPC’s 306 MWp Nokh power plant — soon to be one of India’s largest solar parks.