Single-axis solar trackers are the structure of choice for utility-scale solar development since these systems generate more energy by keeping PV modules pointed toward the sun throughout the day. Company names like Array Technologies, Nextracker and PV Hardware are synonymous with large-scale solar projects, because they manufacture the tracker systems that produce gigawatts of renewable energy across the planet.
These competing manufacturers have one component in common that’s used in many of their trackers — the hardware that makes them move in first place.
“Kinematics may be the most important company no one’s ever heard of when it comes to trackers,” said Adam Plesniak, CTO of Kinematics. “Often, you have various value [propositions] with trackers, like Nevados has got a very different type of system than OMCO, than Nextracker, than Array, but they all literally revolve around our gearbox.”
Kinematics manufactures and assembles slew drives or actuators deployed on single-axis tracker systems, many for the companies that hold a majority of the global solar tracker market share. There are more than 2 million Kinematics actuators in the field, responsible for driving 53 GW of power on single-axis solar trackers.
“We’re in the early stages of a journey to sort of put ourselves out there a bit more,” said John Payne, CEO of Kinematics.
A driving force in solar
For a company that started assembling actuators for the industrial mobile market almost 30 years ago, Kinematics has grown alongside the solar industry. From its headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona, Kinematics still serves the industrial mobile and satellite ground station industries, but 90% of the business is now focused on supplying actuators to solar tracker manufacturers.
“We get the benefit of working across all of those industries and being able to take the knowledge from, say, the precision repeatability that we have to deliver for satellites, pushing that into utility solar — taking the ability to manufacture huge volumes for utility solar for the likes of Nextracker and PV Hardware, and pushing that learning back into the other industries,” Payne said.
An actuator is a self-contained gearbox composed of one or more gears that rotate loads on an axis. In solar applications, an actuator is attached to a torque tube — the rotating portion of a single-axis solar tracker — to create the torsion that moves it.
One Kinematics actuator can rotate a single-axis tracker row hosting between 90 and 100 solar panels. On average, it takes about 30 Kinematics actuators to power rotation for 1 MW of solar power.
Kinematics doesn’t manufacture a single model of driver, because no two solar trackers are the same. For example, Nextracker produces solar trackers with independent panel rows that use individual drives; and Array Technologies’ trackers use drive lines that connect between panel rows and rotate groups in unison. So, Kinematics works with tracker manufacturers to design an actuator that fits their systems’ torque demands and rotational layout.
“They truly appreciate that they’re not just buying an off-the-shelf product. We’re innovating for them and we’re helping the tracker companies reach their goals,” said Jennifer Cangelosi, VP of global sales and business development at Kinematics.
Kinematics has also helped fixed-tilt racking companies transition into tracking systems.
“We’ve had multiple fixed-tilt companies come to us and say, ‘Our customers are asking for trackers. Can you help us?’” Cangelosi said. “We’ve made the path super easy for them. You provide the steel and the panels, and we’ll provide the guts and the heart of the motion control system for those trackers. We’re a really frictionless way to come from a fixed-tilt side of the business and easily morph into a tracker company.”
Kinematics designs and manufactures actuators that are self-locking, meaning a solar tracker can change angles to face the sun and lock into place for however long is needed without risk of an outside force like wind applying opposing torque and rotating it out of position.
The actuator is just one component in the company’s portfolio of motor control hardware for solar trackers. Kinematics also makes encoders and sensors that monitor the system and produce data for operators and the manufacturer to optimize tracker performance.
“There’s this move to what we characterize as ‘digital solar,’” Payne said. “So, making more use of connectivity, sensors, data management, intelligence, actually developing actionable intelligence that ultimately should improve the total lifecycle cost of installing a solar plant.”
To further cut down on operations and maintenance costs, Kinematics has ambitions to produce a “maintenance-free” actuator. In previous models, Kinematics drives required routine grease replenishment. The latest update to the company’s line of actuators is a sealed gearbox where the lubricant is self-contained and doesn’t need to be replenished, while the drive is also protected from outside matter like dust. Kinematics is calling this the ST series
“[Solar trackers] are inspected at least once every 10 years, because there are elements in the controller electronic components — in the batteries, namely — that must be inspected, and in many cases, replaced every 10 years,” Plesniak said. “So, to have a maintenance free product, in one sense, means that it basically has the opportunity to be touched every 10 years. The ST has been purposefully engineered so that you can put eyes on it every 10 years, make sure we have a couple of things to inspect, but ultimately there’s nothing to maintain.”
While headquartered in Phoenix, Kinematics manufactures components at its factory in Jiangsu, China, and ships them to its other plant in Nogales, Mexico, for final assembly.
The company was recently approved to export its actuators into the United States from its Mexican factory. Shipping the final product from Mexico allows the company to avoid tariffs that would apply if importing directly from China.
“It’s our unique technology that enables us to get that tariff shift, so we can effectively get tariff-free products into the U.S. from our Mexico facility, which is a big, big advantage for our customers,” Payne said.
Kinematics plans to expand its manufacturing lines and possibly open a factory in the United States using incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act.
“We are waiting, I think along with a lot of other companies, on getting more clarity from the IRA,” Payne said. “But we have developed a blueprint for what we’re calling ‘future factory,’ which, if we can make it work … we’ll be able to produce drives at a fraction of the time that we currently are producing them out of our facility in Jiangsu.”
Those improvements could be achieved through factory automation and robotics. Kinematics plans to eventually make those updates to its existing facilities as well.
Until then, Kinematics will continue producing its actuators in China and Mexico to keep much of the solar tracker market in motion, pushing toward another 2 million deployed.
“We build these relationships with customers, they last for a long time, and we just quietly work behind the scenes,” Payne said. “We do need to be a little bit more forthright in some of the, quite frankly, amazing things we’re doing, because we are the world leader in the space. I don’t think we’re ever going to be the sort of team that is doing a massive amount of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. We’re just not wired that way.”
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