Solar Plant Trackers: What, Types, Design, and Installation Tips

A solar PV plant and installation is a game of efficiency and output. Researchers, OEMs, solar designers, installers, maintenance staff, financiers, and clients are in the same game to increase the overall efficiency of a PV plant. Why? Higher efficiency and power output lead to greater financial returns and client satisfaction from the same project. 

Over time, many innovations and improvements have been made to engineer a more efficient photovoltaics plant. One such innovation is the solar tracking system

What is a Solar Tracker or Tracking System? 

A solar tracking system is a mechanical innovation wherein the PV panels are designed and installed to follow the sun and not remain stationary i.e, not a fixed-tilt system. Depending upon whether the panel is rotated manually or using equipment such as motors, gears, and other moving equipment fitted on the racking structure, a panel is able to rotate and follow the sun through the day. This allows the same solar PV system to receive higher amounts of parallel solar irradiance, thereby increasing its power output.

Some of the leading manufacturers and brands of tracking systems are: 

  1. NexTracker (USA)
  2. Array Technologies (USA)
  3. Sun Action Trackers (USA)
  4. Soltec (Spain)
  5. PV Hardware (Spain)
  6. Ideematec (Germany)
  7. Sunpower (India)
  8. Scorpius Trackers (India)
  9. Solar Steel (UK)

In 2019, the global industry value of trackers stood at USD 9.30 Billion, with North America witnessing the highest number of such installations.

In the rest of this article, we will explore the type of trackers, and the considerations to be made while installing one. 

Types of Solar Trackers

When we say that a solar panel rotates, it can become confusing as ‘rotation’ can be used to describe the movement towards any angle, without displacing the object.

We can understand the ‘rotation of PV panels’ better by exploring the two types of active tracking systems. There are two types based upon mechanical rotational limits and the direction they follow the sun.  

1] Single Axis Tracker: Using a motor, a single axis solar tracker allows a PV panel to follow the sun from East to West. These panels may rotate as a row or as an entire segment of modules, depending upon the nature of the installation. It typically leads to a higher power output of about 25-35% compared to a fixed-tilt installation.

2] Dual Axis Tracker: A dual-axis solar tracker allows a PV panel to track the sun from East to West, and North to South. Compared to a single-axis, a dual-axis tracker will cost more, have more moving parts, require more space, and a heightened racking due to N-S movement. It typically leads to a higher power output of about 30-45% compared to a fixed-tilt installation. 

Design and Installation Considerations For A Solar Tracker

Despite the evident advantages of solar trackers, they are not recommended for all types of solar installations. They have been available in the market for a long time but it is only after 2016 that solar trackers got adopted more widely, and mostly the single-axis type. This is because various considerations are made while designing a solar PV system. 

Considerations to be made in order to install a tracker are as follows:

Cost And Resultant Payback Period: Solar trackers are not cheap and can substantially increase the project cost. For the most part, the reason solar trackers are being adopted is that the Levelized Cost of Electricity from a solar project has come down.
What is the Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE)? You essentially take the total costs associated with a power plant i.e. CAPEX (modules, inverters, land, civil costs, mechanical costs, etc.) and the OPEX, interest, etc., and divide it by the total energy that the plant is designed to produce in its lifetime. When we say the LCOE has lowered, it can be due to a decrease in CAPEX and OPEX, for the same or higher amount of energy output. 
With the global fall in prices of solar components, access to investments, and increase in efficiency, tracking systems found a place for themselves in the market. To know if solar trackers should be installed or not, a fair calculation needs to be made of whether the net returns from a solar tracking project are higher than the cost of the trackers, or if we can simply install more PV modules to reach the same efficiency at a lower cost.

Operations and Maintenance: A solar PV module’s life is 25 years. The same cannot be said for the rest of the components such as cables, racking structure, etc. When you increase the number of moving parts of a plant, in order to maintain the life of the entire system, the amount of maintenance required increases. You will have to consider if the increase in maintenance cost is justified if spare parts are accessible if the right technicians are available, warranties and guarantees offered by the brand, etc. 

Alternative To Meet The Energy Output: – The single purpose for installing a solar tracker is to generate more energy through the same system. Hence, you must consider if there are alternate solar PV system designs. Can you simply use more PV modules? Should you spend on a solar tracker or invest more in a higher quality module make? Have you made all the other necessary solar PV system design considerations in order to raise the power output? 

Purpose Of Installation: Do all projects require solar trackers? No, they do not. Most residential or rooftop plants do not require it as it is not worth the additional investment. If your project has limited space where you cannot fit in an extra number of modules, or if you’re building a utility or large ground-mounted system, a single-axis tracking system can be considered. 

As the industry matures, tracking systems are gaining popularity and are forecasted to become the norm in the solar energy industry, amongst other growing technologies. 

Given the project scale at which solar trackers are installed, not all solar engineers are skilled or trained to design these solar PV systems. If you’re interested to learn how solar trackers work and how to design solar trackers into a solar PV project, check out our online solar energy training course on Advanced PVSyst where through practical case studies, we learn how to design a solar system with the latest PV technology and tools like bifacial modules, trackers, P50/P90 reports, etc. 


How to get started with designing Solar Tracker?

For an in-depth understanding of softwares that help you design solar tracker like PVSyst and AutoCAD, you may check out the online solar training programs and courses provided by Reo here. 

Our courses are designed by professional solar engineers who have vast international experience in designing and executing solar projects. With their experience, we’ve built courses that are complete with case studies, international best practices, and solutions to real-world problems

For any more questions, we’re right here. Until Next time!

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