Bifacial PV’s Getting Indian Developers Interested In Trackers Again: Dan Shugar

Since co-founding Nextracker in 2013, CEO Dan Shugar has made it one of the manufacturing success stories of the sector. The firm has delivered trackers for over 35 GW of solar plants till now. The firm has now expanded its portfolio to include yield and performance software and global services. SaurEnergy Group Editor Prasanna Singh got these responses from Dan, on the Nextracker story.

Q. What is Nextracker’s expectations from the global markets in 2020? Heading up to 2024? How do you see the India market for your offerings?

Dan Shugar, CEO and Co-founder, Nextracker

Dan Shugar, CEO and Co-founder, Nextracker

Despite some headwinds from the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic downturn and supply chain perturbations, we remain bullish on the large-scale global solar market this year and going forward. IHS Markit has forecast that the global market for ground-mount solar systems of >1 MW will grow 7.9% through 2023, with the tracker market seeing a healthy 22% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) during that time, increasing its overall ground-mount installation market share versus fixed tilt. The Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region will enjoy the largest growth, exceeding 27% overall and 58% in the tracker segment. We’ve enjoyed several large EMEA project contract wins recently, so we see no reason to argue with their forecast. The market research group also sees the India market experiencing modest overall growth–something we’re seeing as well–while expecting an increasing, albeit renewed, percentage of projects to employ trackers over the next few years.

Q. Your new product, the NX Navigator control system, seems to be a really timely offering at a time when extreme weather events are increasing in frequency. Tell us about a few use cases where it can make a difference.

NX Navigator has received a very positive reception, with the software either installed or soon to be deployed on 9 GW (and counting) of solar power plants around the world. NX Navigator helps plant operators to efficiently monitor and control their solar assets with timely sitewide information of key parameters such as tracker availability and usage. It allows operators to proactively put the trackers into safe positions and help prevent damage under a wide range of extreme weather conditions, including hail, snow, high winds, and typhoons. It also features a remote cleaning mode to help facilitate easier O&M. These risk-mitigation features improve safety and reliability, reduce the cost of ownership and improve feedback on the operability and performance of the system. I would add that Nextracker has done extensive wind and hail testing with independent engineers and labs to ensure that our systems are designed and built to withstand extreme weather conditions.

Q. As India is a very price-sensitive market, we have seen many developers avoid trackers on their projects. Do you see that changing soon? Have trackers managed to keep up with the drop in overall BOS prices?

Admittedly, India is a challenging market for trackers, but it’s an exception rather than the rule—although we have deployed more than 1 GW of systems on the subcontinent. We see the opposite in most of the thriving solar markets worldwide, with utility-scale project developers and EPCs in Australia, EMEA, Latin America and the U.S. choosing trackers over fixed-tilt ground mount systems. Several Indian-owned EPCs are choosing our trackers for their projects outside of India as well. This market transformation is remarkable, since only a few years ago, fixed tilt still reigned. The price gap between trackers and fixed tilt has narrowed, and trackers’ superior energy production over the lifetime of the power plant and increased system reliability more than overcome the initial capital outlay differential. Another factor is the advent of bifacial PV, which is causing developers in India to take a second look at trackers, given the even-greater performance boost inherent in the new technology. As a result, we’ve seen a bump in our Indian pipeline recently.

Q. Increased energy yield, lower operating costs, or better availability, as Nextracker promises, should be a very powerful argument to close sales. Is there a minimum project size where you believe it becomes absolutely essential?

It’s not a question of minimum project size but rather the estimated benefit that we provide to developers and plant operators, based on modeled and measured performance gains.

TrueCapture makes sense because the internal rate of return (IRR) “math” is compelling at the end of the day. We’re seeing beneficial gains on sites of <100 MW in Latin America, Australia, and the U.S., ranging from 1% to 4% . Such gains can translate into hundreds of additional megawatt-hours of output and hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in additional revenue annually for power plant owners. And when you combine bifacial PV with TrueCapture, the performance gains are even more profound, on the order of an additional 8-15%.

On the services and O&M side, our systems have lower operating costs than our competitors due to our durable, service-friendly hardware and smart predictive monitoring and control tools as well as the ease of cleaning panels and keeping vegetation growth in check when using our independent-row tracker design architecture. The use of robotic cleaning on our tracker arrays has also been embraced, especially in areas like the Middle East, North Africa, India and other desert regions where dealing with chronic module soiling can be a challenge.

Q. NX Global Services uses remote monitoring and data analytics in a big way to deliver. Considering India’s traditional strengths in outsourcing, are you doing work for other countries out of India? Any plans in the area?

Nextracker is connected to 70%+ of our 40 GW+ fleet worldwide. Without connectivity, our smart monitoring and control software such as TrueCapture, NX Navigator, and Digital O&M cannot function properly. We expect that percentage to continue growing, as the performance and operational benefits of our intelligent software ecosystem, machine-learning capabilities and big data analytics become evident to our customers. We have close to 400 staff worldwide, including 100 in our Hyderabad office. Our NX Global Services hub is located in Nashville, Tennessee. We have field technicians, data scientists, quality/reliability teams, local construction crews, asset managers and performance-focused staff constantly monitoring our fleet around the clock.

We received feedback from a major U.S. developer and owner recently, who said it was impressive that we could detect eventual wear and tear on particular components well in advance, just by looking at the data. Our data science team likes to say we give customers the luxury of time because so often plant downtime — especially with sudden extreme weather events– cannot be predicted.

We can predict, replace, and properly maintain systems, without causing any production losses.

Q. Can you share a breakdown of revenues and shares between your software, services and tracker offerings?

While we can’t go into specifics on our actual revenues or how they break down by category, we can say that tracker sales remain our bread and butter, accounting for the lion’s share of our revenues. One thing we can say is that bifacial PV projects are becoming a growing part of our business. But our software and services offerings have become key contributors to our bottom line. Nextracker’s TrueCapture energy yield enhancement software solution has had an incredible response in the market. The platform is now being used on more than 80 power plants on four continents worldwide, with some sites enjoying production gains of over 4 percent.

Q. Projected growth rate for the firm, and the tracker industry in general? Current size of the global trackers industry? Which segments are likely to grow fastest now?

We are experiencing continued strong growth in 2020. This is in line with the double-digit, year-on-year increase in global tracker market forecast by IHS Markit, who expect to see more than 26.65 GW of installations this year. Looking ahead to 2021, we are especially bullish on our rapidly growing Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa pipelines and see continued strong project activity in the U.S., Australia, and Latin America as well as renewed interest in India. I would also add that we are actively engaged worldwide with regional trade organizations such as MESIA and NSEFI on local content policy and economic development initiatives.

Q. What technology innovations do you see having an impact on the tracker market in the coming years?

Nextracker has always been an innovator, with a strong investment in R&D and product development. In addition to smart control and monitoring software like TrueCapture and NX Navigator, we believe bifacial PV technology is a game changer. We have seen a tremendous uptick in interest from developers and have gigawatts of orders for bifacial systems under fulfillment or already fielded.

Nextracker and its partners have done and continue to do extensive bifacial testing at our Center for Solar Excellence as well as at other field testing sites. We know that for bifacial to achieve its market potential, investors and financiers must be able to confidently predict bifacial performance. The ability to accurately model and measure bifacial performance is crucial. A new technical white paper presents Nextracker’s test methodology and findings with the goal of providing actionable content for developers, financiers, independent engineering firms, and performance engineers working to characterize fielded bifacial system performance.

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