Scaling Big Solar

In Episode 17 of Power Players by Origis®, host Michael Eyman discusses scaling big solar with Alex Au, Chief Technology Officer and a co-founder at Nextracker.

 

 

MEET THE PLAYERS

As the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and co-founder at Nextracker, Alex Au leads the company’s technology roadmap and engineering teams, driving the development of holistic PV plant solutions, in addition to the creation of the Company’s award-winning single axis tracker portfolio, which includes NX Horizon™ and TrueCapture™ optimization and control software. Alex has over 20 years of PV and energy storage product development experience, ranging from residential to utility scale.  He holds design patents on the Andalay rack and framing, the SunSeeker tracker, and hundreds of patents for the Nextracker technology suite.

With twenty years of leadership and operations experience, Managing Director Michael Eyman ensures that Origis Energy Services’ rapidly growing solar and energy storage portfolio performs as projected for owners and communities.

Terrain

“Obviously the perfectly flat land you don’t have to do anything with for prep and landscape management, those have kind of gone away. And so, one of the things that we’ve really worked on is how do we get a product into the ground with the least amount of pre-work, with the least amount of disturbing of the topsoil?” said Au.

He pointed out multiple benefits can be gained with technology capable of moving with the topography. “If you’re following the terrain, you don’t have to do earthwork. And we all know that as soon as we remove that top layer, it releases a lot of carbon, it takes a lot of time to resettle. You then must manage irrigation or water off-run. All these things come into play and are additional work caused by this cut and fill process. The asset manager is required to maintain that topsoil over the life of the project. These are all things we’re able to avoid if we can just follow the terrain of the land.”

Weather

As the industry provides a growing percentage of the generation in this country, complexity related to weather is growing.

Preventative measures espoused in regulatory code books are not in step with industry requirements. Au described how the industry design and engineering work needs to be ahead of what is often in code books.

“My first iteration of the tracker at a different company, the basis of the design was a sloped roof in the building code and a bridge deck. Neither of those represent what we’re doing where we have a fixed object on one side all the way out. You know, now we’re football fields away, and it’s twisting on one side and it’s rigid on the other side, right? There’s nothing in the code books to do that. And so, we were seeing a lot of things that happened in real life that weren’t talked about in code books,” said Au.

Severe weather patterns are changing across the country. And while some weather challenges can be solved with hardware engineering, others can be addressed with software solutions.

“Like a hurricane coming in, we can obviously prep for that. We can take the software strategy of stowing into the wind. All those things can be considered ahead of time. But something like hail may happen a lot faster.

Au described a fast-moving storm with hail causing an operator to need to move quickly to protect the site. “We’ve also deployed software solutions where we’re connected directly to national, if not global weather software companies where they’re saying, ‘Hey, you have a scenario there.’ But then at the same time, we also have the software capabilities to allow a local operator to trigger [turning the panels for storage]. And for [that to happen in] seconds and not minutes or half an hour. That’s something you don’t want a local operator to look out the window and hit a button and watch all the damage happen because their system moves too slow.”

Demand Curve

Au looks at scaling solutions to address demand curve dips as the next important challenge for the industry.

“The solution lies … around creating a larger capacity factor that is just not PV only, but including energy storage or whatever capabilities that you can put on that electric point of interconnect, right? And so, I see a tremendous amount of opportunity in this space. This is really exciting because, at the end of the day, this is where you can go to a developer or the off-taker and say, ‘Here’s our solution for delivering electrons to you when you need them,’ versus, ‘Hey, when the sun shines, we’ll give you something’ and I want to be much better at solving that actively.”

Conclusion

Eyman agreed and summarized much of the conversation by noting: “the bottom line is sites have nuance, right? They have issues associated with them. That creates a massive amount of variability. To scale in the industry, we’ve got to find a way to standardize against that variability.”

During their conversation, Au and Eyman discussed ways to scale big solar.

Three key takeaways:

  1. Installations that adapt to the terrain through technology, rather than adapting the terrain to the installation, are more efficient.
  2. Many of the varied weather patterns around the country can be addressed with both hardware engineering and software learnings.
  3. Finding the best solution to the demand curve created by renewable energy creates exciting possibilities for future growth.

 

We’d like to thank our Power Players expert guest Alex Au and host Michael Eyman, for their insightful conversation, giving context and perspective to the swiftly changing solar dynamics.