Trina pivots to meet the needs of challenging utility-scale solar farm sites 


Since Trina Solar fully acquired Spanish solar tracker company Nclave in September last year (it has held a 51% stake since May 2018), it has been integrating its higher output solar panels with the innovative Nclave system to provide a single-OEM solution for customers at the utility scale that helps address what Andrew Gilhooly, Trina’s Head of Utility Solution Sales for the Asia Pacific region, says is a decrease in easy-access solar sites in Australia.

Last week at the All-Energy virtual conference, Trina Solar spruiked a new 670 Watt Vertex-series panel (expected to be listed by the Clean Energy Council  as compliant with Australian standards this month — November) to the Australian market, and announced a Sydney-based training centre for installers of TrinaTrackers.

pv magazine Australia caught up with Gilhooly to see how the new Trina offerings can help ease the pain points of developers here on the ground.

pv magazine: How are Australian sites for utility scale solar becoming more challenging? 

Andy Gilhooly: In the past five years working in the utility segment, I’ve seen a pronounced increase in more challenging sites, firstly in terms of available area. Sites are becoming more constrained, especially with the propensity for pretty much every utility farm to bolt on a battery either now or at some stage in the future. So as we try to achieve effective cycling and utilisation of that battery — packing in every possible megawatt DC that you can — what might previously have been an unconstrained site very quickly becomes constrained. 

We’re also seeing sites with irregular boundaries where previously you used to have nice expansive four-corner patches of land completely flat and with soils that facilitated effective piling of the tracker foundations. Now it’s as though the low-hanging fruit in terms of good sites has been depleted and what’s left is an increasingly challenging array of sites with highly variable terrain, sites that are rocky, or even sites that are prone to flood inundation.

Also with optimal sites in terms of connection and proximity to demand having been snapped up, we’re seeing sites situated further and further away from large population centres, which brings with it a commensurate increase in mobilisation-of-labour cost. In remote regions, where our customers are often competing with existing industries like coal mining, and there’s not a lot of available labour close by, they’re having to bus people in and out and in a high labor cost market like Australia, that’s pretty significant. Plus with the mining industry also coming on board with renewable energy aspirations, there’s an overall increase in challenging very remote sites.

So how does the new, larger module help with challenging sites?

Trina was the first mover last year to these large-format modules and that’s reached a crescendo with the launch of our 670 Watt module that utilises an M12 210-millimetre wafer. The cells used in the modules are larger than competitor modules, which means fewer cells are needed and therefore the operating voltage is lower. So for the same amount of megawatts there are fewer electrical strings for installers to crimp and connect, there’s less DC trenching, and there are fewer combiner boxes on a balance of system level.

Launched to the global market in March, Trina Solar’s 670W Vertex module is this month expected to be listed by the Clean Energy Council as compliant with Australian standards.

Trina Solar

Tracker design must be crucial to addressing site challenges…

Firstly, Trina has always been at the forefront of bifacial technology on the modules. As I say we were the first mover to these large-format high wattage modules last year, and we’re the only module manufacturer to offer a truly integrative solution of bifacial module and intelligent single-axis tracker. We find that the customers who build, own and operate the asset, and therefore have a long-term view, respond favourably to the one-stop shop and single point of accountability and service as an inherently more bankable and lower technology risk.

And we are one of the few technologies to have been deployed at scale in cyclonic regions. Combined with being a first mover in that large module space, we understand the challenges and the engineering complexities of successfully accommodating these pretty large modules into our single axis trackers in a fashion that’s absolutely, structurally fit for purpose.

How many projects are actually utilising bifacial panels these days?

Within the utility segment, we’ve seen a shift where pretty much every project that we’re quoting with our trackers is utilising bifacial, because the price premium on the product has narrowed as bifacial technology has scaled. Then you get a synergy or a value stacking effect by using a bifacial module on a tracker; the increase in energy exceeds what you would get from a bifacial on a fixed structure because they’re they’re higher off the ground, they’re more widely spaced so they let more more sunlight in and around and on the underside of the modules which is how bifacial modules function and unlock more energy. So for a relatively modest increase in capex, you’re unlocking potentially more than 5% extra energy. Most developers now are seeing bifacial combined with trackers as the way to go.

We also see an additional boost in energy because trackers, being a bit higher off the ground, enable a slightly more convective cooling effect of the wind on the panels.

And an unexpected bonus is that the potential to unlock colocation of solar and agriculture is made easier by using trackers. In fact, Trina Solar, has deployed its tracking technology on a 30 megawatt poverty-alleviation project in China which ran a scheme to encourage the uptake of solar in agriculture. On that project, the tracker structure was elevated almost three metres to enable large vehicles to traverse the site underneath and facilitate cropping. 

Why did Trina feel the need to open an Australian training and certification centre installers of its trackers?

Shortly after we acquired the Spanish tracker business, we launched our two types of trackers — the Vanguard 2P single-row tracker and Agile 1P dual-row tracker — into the market, but unfortunately, with the restrictions around travel and large events and not being able to exhibit at the usual industry shows we had to find a way to increase the familiarity of our products to the wider market and probably even more importantly to those installers who are tasked by our customers to build their solar farms. People were extremely interested and curious about the trackers, so we decided to set up this training facility in Sydney where customers and installers can trial the assembly process, get the components in their own hands and see the inherent benefits that they unlock. 

What volume of utility solar does Trina have in its Australian pipeline at the moment?

Despite the challenges last year, we’ve been really encouraged by the traction we’ve gained. With our one-portrait Agile tracker we expect to close multiple projects totalling over 120 MW to be built in Australia next year. And our two-portrait Vanguard tracker is already specified as the technology of choice on over 300 MW of projects to be built in Australia and New Zealand next year.

What would make purchasers of other brand solar panels come to Trina for trackers?

Aside from being one of the few trackers to have been successfully deployed in cyclonic wind regions, I’d say low-foundation count is a big drawcard. When our 2P Vanguard tracker is used in conjunction with our 670 Watt bifacial modules, it requires a very, very low foundation count — as low as 100 foundations per megawatt. Other trackers that have one in portrait might require 200 to 300 foundations per megawatt. So that’s a considerable saving itself, but it also opens up the possibility of deploying trackers on sites that were previously considered unviable because they might be really rocky and you have to do a lot of pre drilling, or on sites with uncohesive soil, where you’ve got to bury the piles three or four metres deep to achieve stability. By so significantly reducing the number of foundations, we really mitigate the cost penalty of building on those challenging sites. 

Also, the patented spherical bearings on our tracker mechanism can articulate in three dimensions, which gives our trackers a really, really good slope tolerance of up to 30% in any direction. Again, on sites that were previously considered unviable because you would need to do so much civil work and cutting and filling to prepare them, we can deploy without disturbing the land, which is also more sustainable. 


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