Rise and Shine

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.

A Smartphone-Style Revolution

“What’s happening with solar is very analogous to how computers replaced typewriters, how digital cameras replaced film, how cell phones displaced landlines,” Shugar says. “Solar is exactly on that trajectory.”

He believes that solar will make coal and nuclear power plants obsolete by 2030, and some of the numbers support his predictions. Since 2006, the solar market has grown an average of 65% each year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. A new solar project is now activated in the U.S. every 1.6 minutes.

Despite such growth, solar still contributes just a fraction of the world’s energy needs. The International Energy Agency predicts that all renewable energy, which provided 13% of the world’s consumption in 2013, will contribute only 18% by 2040. That could change if renewable-energy technology continues to advance as rapidly as it has in recent years.

“Our goal is to make solar the largest source of energy in the world,” Shugar says. “We’ve come so far in this industry, where solar is now lower-cost than any other form [of renewable energy] in selected markets. And [falling costs] is a trend we continue to see.”

NEXTracker focuses on power plants, which now make up roughly 60% of the solar market. But solar is gaining traction in other areas, too, including individual homes.

According to Bloomberg, 40% of capacity predicted for the U.S. by 2040 will come from small-scale photovoltaic installations like rooftop panels. That’s an increase from 0.8% today. Graybeal says that in Europe, small-scale solar is driving adoption, and individual or consumer adoption is a significant part of the energy future for places such as sub-Saharan Africa.

 

[NEXTracker] is a platform that could, in real time, affect the performance of a power plant through software updates, Graybeal says.

 

“It becomes a question of what’s more pragmatic and practical,” Graybeal says. “You can put solar on a rooftop, but it’s a little more challenging to find a useful small wind-turbine generator for home use.”

Cost is a big driver for individual installation, too, Shugar says. “You have two options. One is you can keep buying power from the power company, and let’s say you pay $300 a month. Option two: You have a solar company that finances the system that goes on your roof so you have no capital cost for the hardware and a smaller monthly payment for the cost of electricity. So right off the bat, you don’t have to spend any money for the solar array and you start saving at least $50 a month on electricity.”

In many parts of the country, particularly California and the Southwest, consumers are embracing solar.

“In California, everybody’s doing it,” Shugar says. “It sounds too good to be true, but it’s not. It works.”

Dodging Shade

Solar isn’t without its challenges, of course. Even advocates of renewable energy acknowledge that obstacles remain. The industry has yet to develop a better battery for storing solar power, for example, which is something that Flex is actively working on, according to Graybeal. There are also problems integrating solar with the electric grid.

A 2016 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory says that only 26% of small building rooftops are suitable for the development of solar infrastructure.

There also have been well-publicized setbacks, the most infamous being Solyndra, a solar-panel-manufacturing company that was touted by President Obama shortly before it went belly-up in 2011.

Shugar says such failures have been politicized and overblown—of the thousands of solar companies in the U.S., very few have failed. Because of this, “it’s important to understand that this technology works, it’s growing, it’s really low-cost, and it’s in a leadership position,” he says.

Still, like the landline giving way to the mobile phone, the transition doesn’t happen overnight.

Shugar offers another analogy. In the early days of air conditioning, hardly any Americans had home units, but by the mid-1950s there was much greater adoption. “We’re going down the exact same road,” he says. “And we started about five years ago.”

From a business standpoint, Graybeal believes that smart, connected systems like NEXTracker’s will help change the conversation fundamentally. “The question typically has been, ‘How much does your panel cost?’” he says. “That’s a commodity conversation. We’re driving toward a system solution instead of a product solution, and the system is what really matters.”

There’s also the societal motivation.

Shugar, for one, is optimistic that solar will contribute to a global attitude shift regarding the protection of the environment. “It’s one of the major components in solving global warming,” he says.

And powerful people are addressing that threat head-on—including Pope Francis himself.

Addressing the UN last year, the Pontiff issued a stark warning about the dangers of climate change, saying, “Any harm done to the environment...is harm done  to humanity.”