After attending RE+ 2023, it’s apparent that racking, mounting and tracker manufacturers in the U.S. solar market have an established profile for their structures supporting solar panels. At each market level, there are systems that resemble one another, but upon closer inspection, the individual components that they’re composed of are where there’s actual individuality among racking.
Nearly every solar tracker manufacturer has a single-axis model that can adapt to undulating topography; commercial rooftop racking has a basket for ballasts and can be laid out for different panel orientations; mounts for pitched rooftops no longer require metal plate flashing for composite shingles. Of course, there are always exceptions to the standard. Startups have something new that they think can disrupt the market, but it hasn’t achieved widespread deployment like racking and mounts from established manufacturers.
For many racking companies in commercial and residential solar, the first half of 2023 was slow for sales. But solar tracker manufacturing is expanding rapidly, and several announcements of new factories opening in the United States were made just this week. Here are just a few of the products I saw and news I heard at RE+ 2023.
Nextracker opened RE+ week by inaugurating a factory with contract manufacturer Unimacts on Monday. Unimacts is fabricating torque tubes that will exclusively supply Nextracker single-axis solar trackers. This factory has been in operation for six months already and is the sixth facility Nextracker has commissioned since the start of 2022.
On the show floor, Nextracker highlighted three upgrades to existing products in its portfolio. The first is an updated version of its solar tracker XTR, with a 1.5 model that builds on the tracker’s capability to be installed on uneven land, reducing grading on project sites. The second product is a software and mechanical update to the NX Horizon tracker called Hail Pro, which increased the tracker’s angle of rotation to better resist oncoming hail. The third is True Capture Zonal Diffuse, a shade detection software that will independently stow tracker rows when covered by clouds. Nextracker believes this will help with production on solar projects covering miles of land.
Array Technologies made two manufacturing announcements this week. The first is a $35 million with Extruded Aluminum Corporation to expand Array’s U.S. manufacturing footprint, adding 180,000 sq ft and new aluminum presses to an EAC facility in Belding, Michigan. Then Array signed a supply agreement with Steel Dynamics to provide domestic steel coil for use in solar tracker manufacturing.
Additionally, Array showed two single-axis solar tracker models at RE+. DuraTrack was developed in house and uses inter-row drivers. The system’s torque tubes are octagonal and have no drilled holes for fasteners. Instead, torque tubes are secured to the tracker unit with a proprietary clamp. Array acquired European competitor STI Norland in early 2022, and this year had the Array STI- H250, a dual-row tracker with a drive motor capable of moving up to 120 modules with one unit.
PVHardware has a large presence in Europe, with facilities across Spain, and has entered the U.S. solar manufacturing game with a new factory opening in Houston, Texas. The company said the factory has the capacity to manufacture trackers for 12 GW of projects annually and expects to increase that output to 18 GW by the end of the year. A spokesperson also said PVHardware is considering starting a second factory in Nevada or Florida.
OMCO Solar is opening its sixth factory dedicated to manufacturing fixed-tilt racking and solar trackers, which will be completed by the end of 2024. OMCO handles steel fabrication in house, and ships solar racking and trackers directly from its factories, including this latest in Lawrence County.
With this sixth facility, OMCO is officially entering the utility solar market with its Origin single-axis trackers. OMCO has supplied large-scale projects with its Choice fixed-tilt racking, but was previously keeping Origin in distributed generation and commercial projects. The company is also fabricating backrails for First Solar’s Series 7 modules at its new Alabama plant.
FTC Solar exhibited its Voyager two-in-portrait and Pioneer one-in-portrait solar trackers. However, a big push for the company this year is its suite of complementary solar tracker software. There are four programs: SunDat, Atlas, SunPath and SunOps, which handle system design, management, yield and monitoring, respectively. These programs are tracker agnostic, with the expectation that system owners might have more than one brand of solar tracker in their project portfolio.
Terrasmart was pushing the message that it can offer turnkey services for everything below the solar panel on ground-mounted projects. For products, the company has its A-Frame solar tracker foundation, fixed-tilt racking, solar carports, ground screw foundations, electrical balance of systems and project design software. Terrasmart can also handle civil work and pile and racking installation for solar projects. Most of its manufacturing is handled domestically.
Kinematics debuted Kinematics ONE, a packaged actuation sub-system that contains all the hardware and software necessary to drive a solar tracker system. The idea is to give racking manufacturers the option to develop a tracker system without designing a tracker’s drives, motors and system controls themselves. This could also help manufacturers in fixed-tilt racking take advantage of the manufacturing tax credits available to solar trackers in the Inflation Reduction Act.
IronRidge released two new models of mounting rails that have wire runs in mind. Aire is a rail with integrated wire management that was NEMA VE1 as a cable tray. The system has channels on either side of its inner base that drain water. The system uses hidden end clamps and has mid clamps that install with a quarter turn. Rail splices can be made by inserting two bolts. Aire is compatible with IronRidge’s HUG mount, which uses foam and a mastic adhesive to flash roof penetrations.
K2 Systems kept a busy booth with solar racking for different roof types. The South Face is its newest ballasted flat rooftop system. It can be installed with modules in landscape or portrait orientations, with its inter-row chassis adjustable between 1 and 18 in. for higher system density. K2 is bringing Simple Tilt, a flat roof racking that uses extra rails as tilt legs, from Mexico to the U.S. market. The company is also putting greater focus on its mounting solutions for metal rooftops. One of those racking systems is MicroRail TR, which adapted K2’s Crossrail for installing on metal trapezoidal roofs.
Unirac took installer feedback and updated its NXT solar mounting rail. The system uses hidden end clamps and can attach to Unirac’s Direct Attach mounts, which use pre-applied butyl as a sealant for flashing. The company developed clamps that act as mid and end clamp connections on mounting rails.
With backing from other companies, S-5! developed PVKIT HUR, or High Uplift Resistance. HUR is a metal rooftop solar mount that underwent six months of intensive uplift testing to receive an FM 4478 certification. The mount has an uplift resistance rating of 105 psf. S-5! said it’s not meant for every market but is fit for territories with high wind loads.
Following an ad campaign that included a segment where company CEO Kai Stephan tested a solar mount by attaching it to a surfboard, Pegasus Solar showcased its InstaFlash and SkipRail mounting and racking solutions. InstaFlash is a rafter-attached roof mount that releases a pre-installed adhesive when the lag bolt is driven into the roof, sealing the penetration. The SkipRail System attaches to panels frames between rows, reducing the number of necessary mounting rails on an installation. It also electrically bonds the system and works on composite, tile and metal rooftops.
EcoFasten is integrating a pre-installed flashing that is a combination of butyl adhesive and foam on its ClickFit and RockIt over-the-shingle roof mounts. The flashing is designed to have tolerances for uneven roof surfaces and compresses and seals penetrations.