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Solar power industry set to meet ambitious goals, and power the U.S. to a cleaner energy future

By Nagendra Cherukupalli, FTC Sola

The solar power industry has set some ambitious goals for the coming years, and a number of initiatives are helping to move solar power forward, despite the challenging situation of COVID-19.

It's helpful to look at some of the major challenges and factors driving the industry.

1. Distributed energy generation is key to enable growth in renewable energy consumption.

         a. Solar energy availability is ubiquitous and unbiased across the globe. Generating energy at or close to the point of consumption enables hitherto unserved populations to be served with energy. This would unshackle them and allow them to gain freedom from energy-starvation leading to improved living conditions and better livelihoods.

         b. Access to energy stimulates localized business opportunities, leading to newer and stickier energy consumption models.

         c. A big side-effect of localized generation and consumption of energy is the efficiency of the distribution: fewer transmission losses, no need for large investments to enhance the grid, and less pilferage of energy.

All these lead to growth in renewable energy consumption.

2. Solar companies help with the transition to renewable sources.

         a. Technology advancement is key to this adoption, and solar technology companies are in the best position to drive this transition.

         b. The main solar technology companies include companies that supply modules, different types of racking, energy harvesting and conversion equipment, evacuation and grid-integration equipment, and plant production monitoring equipment.

         c. An integrated and collaborative ecosystem will drive this transition efficiently. Key relationships between various parties of the ecosystem such as developers, EPCs, supply chain, manufacturers, logistics management, and consumers help with the transition.

3. Deployment of large-scale power plants will assist in achieving the target scale quickly.

         a. Scale cannot be achieved unless there are cost efficiencies in the ecosystem. In the case of solar, all the necessary ingredients for a solar plant, starting from modules onward, have seen significant manufacturing efficiencies leading to lower costs.

         b. Many solar companies have invested in driving the technology frontier further by bringing in LEAN techniques to assemble and construct solar plants. This drives labor costs down with improved ROI.

         c. Newer technologies such as cleaning robots have made advances to improve O&M of plants, leading to better maintenance and production at solar plants.

         d. Sophisticated AI platforms are finding their way into plant management, which helps drive production up while ensuring plant safety, especially during non-friendly environmental conditions like storms and hurricanes.

         e. Improved energy-storage technologies will help with firming of the solar power leading to more deterministic access to energy from renewables 24/7.

All these interdependencies are evolving in consonance to drive scale and improve the LCOE of plants, leading to quicker adoption.

4. Government incentives have played a large role in getting us where we are today, but with PV technology getting less expensive and more efficient all the time, the more important role for government to play would be to push states to meet renewable energy goals.

In terms of planning advances, FTC Solar's SunDAT Web Service, which has brought cloud-based PV design software to connected users wherever they are, facilitates rapid generation and analysis of hundreds of options for a potential site. SunDAT and SunDAT Web Service integrate with PV Bid and SunFig to include project cost estimation and project financial returns, enabling users to perform a complete economic optimization of their projects.

Starting with only a ground or rooftop boundary, the SunDAT Web Service can model virtually every combination of design parameter: module/inverter types, ground coverage ratio, string size, tracking vs. fixed-tilt, azimuth, and more, producing complete site layouts, and energy estimates in minutes. Combined with the power of PV Bid, each iteration of design can be independently costed, providing direct visibility into the economics of each configuration. With the ability to connect technical site design, energy estimation, and cost, SunDat users can quickly see which option produces the best LCOE, IRR, and NPV.

On the equipment side, an example of technology advancement in the industry is FTC Solar's Voyager, a next generation, single-axis tracker that requires fewer posts/modules, less DC cabling, and enables industry-leading installation processes, driving the lowest total installed cost.

Voyager's single-row, 2-P architecture enables optimized performance for bi-facial modules and allows the optimization of available land, while maintaining suitable accessibility for O&M in higher Ground Cover Ratio designs. FTC Solar provides a proprietary control system with Voyager, enabling granular control with row-level backtracking capabilities. As a result, Voyager delivers among the best LCOE in the industry.

With advances such as these, and many, many others developed by industry and government, the industry can look forward to meeting the ambitious solar power goals-and powering the U.S. to a cleaner energy future.

Nagendra Cherukupalli is chief technology officer at FTC Solar (www.ftcsolar.com). Trained as a computer science professional, he has worked extensively in software, semiconductor, solar, and energy platforms.