Solar Trackers vs. Traditional Solar

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A dual axis solar tracker system
A dual axis solar tracker system. Image courtesy of Aurora Energy.

With advances in solar technology, “solar tracker” has become a buzz word in the industry and we’ve been getting questions about the feasibility of these systems. We thought we’d address the subject at length below.

Pros & Cons of Solar Tracking

To date, most solar tracking installations have been installed for large corporate projects where there is a limitation in space or in regions where daylight hours are short and a maximum of the sun’s energy needs to be captured. Generally it’s more cost effective to simply add a few more panels to a traditional roof or ground mounted solar system, but in some instances the space must be optimally utilized and maximum efficiency harnessed. This is achieved by always having the modules at the optimal angle to the sun, but the percentage of increased efficiency greatly differs depending on the type of tracker and the region of the installation.

Santa Barbara is perfectly situated for solar production and most properties here, commercial or otherwise, are not restricted by these issues. In our 11 years of operation and site analyses, we have never encountered a project where we recommended the installation of a solar tracking system.

Because solar tracking systems are inherently mobile, with either single or dual axis, their technology is much more complex than a traditional solar system. With sensors, motors, power management and remote control technologies, these systems have a lot more components that are vulnerable to maintenance and repair, as well as additional installation costs related to potential site trenching, grading and extra wiring requirements. Solar tracking technology is also relatively new and has not been proven to withstand the 20+ year lifespan of traditional solar. In addition, SolarReviews notes that solar “trackers installed close to salt water may require implementing additional protective measures.”

Many also argue that one of the advantages of a solar tracking system is that it can be installed on a rented property and then be taken with you when you move. While roof or ground mounted solar systems are only installed on owned properties, these traditional arrays are definitely removable. In fact, we have had a handful of customers take their systems with them upon leaving town or even the state! And in both cases, similar considerations need to be made when looking at a potential new property and the placement of the solar modules.

Is the Cost Worth It?

Because of the complex tracker, sensor and motor systems that make up solar trackers, they are currently much more expensive than traditional solar solutions. As Sunlux states, “a traditional home in California requires a 5.95kW system to fully power the home.” While most tracking systems can be configured to any size, the cost of  installation plus potential excavation, extra maintenance and preventative maintenance packages, “trackers need to become around 50% cheaper to be economic,” SolarReviews estimates. And if you invest in a preventative maintenance package, that’s an additional cost that traditional solar doesn’t incur.

For all the reasons stated above, our team at Sun Pacific Solar Electric continues to state that solar tracking systems are more closely linked to kinetic art than they are to energy efficiency. Until the price of tracking systems come down and their track record is proven, we will continue to maintain that it’s more cost effective to just add a few more panels to a traditional solar system.

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