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Trackers Lead Solar Into Harshest of Environments

There are two particularly egregious arguments against solar power: it does not work in certain areas because of weather and it costs too much. But as we saw at Intersolar in San Francisco earlier this month, the industry's continuous innovation is helping to blow these false perceptions out of the water.

As you can see from the map below, the sunniest regions in the United States are in the Southwest, Southeast and islands like Hawaii and Puerto Rico. The Southwest is on the path to meet its solar potential with California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado among the top five states for solar PV capacity, according to the U.S. Solar Market Insight. But America’s other sunny regions lag behind.

Florida, Hawaii and Puerto Rico each ranks outside the top 10 states in PV capacity, behind less sunny Northeast states such as New Jersey and Massachusetts. But what the Northeast lacks in sunshine, these states make up for in policy, incentives and rebates, which all play a large role in steering adoption rates by making solar more economical. New Jersey and Massachusetts have thrust themselves into solar capacity leadership positions because solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) have driven the market and created a significant upswing in demand by improving solar return on investment.

Though solar is surviving the snow and hail in the Northeast, consumers and policymakers in the Southeast and the islands continue to hold onto a false perception that solar technology is not reliable under harsh weather conditions. They’re wrong – solar is tougher than they think. We all know that Florida, Hawaii and Puerto Rico can be subject to hurricanes and high winds, as you can see in the hurricane map below. But we need to make it clear to skeptics in those states that leading solar companies are addressing those concerns with well-designed products and services.

The winds have changed

Through innovative engineering, the solar industry has developed a solution that can overcome policy and weather – PV solar trackers. A single-axis tracker is an automated tracking system that aligns the solar panels with the sun throughout the day. By following the sun, the system can produce up to 25 percent more solar energy than the traditional fixed-tilt system, which sits at one angle throughout the day.

For example, a 1-MW DC system in Southern California can generate an additional $428,000 in revenue per year by using a tracking system versus a fixed tilt system. A tracker over a fixed-tilt system can be that critical push to optimize solar financing mechanisms. Trackers capable of withstanding harsh environments can bring those advantageous economics to new markets. Today, consumers are already benefiting from solar tracking systems from the snow caps of the Sierra Nevada to the barren deserts of Death Valley.  

Tracker Proven For All Weather Conditions

Take for example a 1 MW DC project in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., located on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada at an elevation of roughly 8,000 feet above sea level. Mammoth Lakes Community Water District is producing 20 percent more solar energy by going with a single-axis tracking system over a fixed tilt system. This means the over 2,000,000 kWh produced offsets up to 80 percent of annual electricity demands of the treatment plant, stabilizing future energy costs.

From the peaks of the Sierra Nevada to 242 feet below sea level, Death Valley is a region known for its extreme diurnal temperatures and stark desert conditions. Xanterra Parks and Resorts selected a single axis tracker for their 1 MW DC system at Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort, located in Death Valley National Park. The tracking system is producing 21 percent more solar than a fixed tilt, amounting to nearly 2,500,000 kWh annually and reducing the electricity usage of the entire property by up to 60 percent.

Trackers are a proven, reliable technology that puts to rest the myth that solar cannot weather harsh conditions.

O&M Strategy Ensures Long Term Reliability

Engineering a tough product for extreme weather conditions is a big part of the equation. But to further eliminate any doubts about solar’s ability to operate in all weather conditions, it is important to have a proactive operations and maintenance (O&M) strategy. Companies that engineer, design and build solar projects can have a distinct advantage at providing O&M on those projects. In many cases, they can recommend the best steps for preventative maintenance specifically for the weather conditions for which the project was designed. And because they designed the system, they can often find, diagnose and fix the problem more quickly. And for those who have survived blizzards in the Northeast and hurricanes in the Southeast, you understand the importance of getting your power up and running quickly.

In the end, any power source can be impacted by storms. But PV solar providers have a distinct advantage in being able to look at a region’s specific needs first and design a solution that will cost less over its lifetime, deliver more energy, and is built to last.

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