In short: You can get more electricity by pointing solar panels directly at the sun throughout the day. Making that happen requires moving parts, and added expense. We help you determine if that added expense is worth it, and introduce you to a new kind of technology which allows solar farm operators to track the sun with their panels without the need for any electricity to power the moving parts.
You may have seen videos of large arrays of solar panels which track the sun. It’s a beautiful sight to see, as it reflects parts of our nature. Scientists came up with a fancy word called, “heliotropism” to describe how plants turn themselves toward the sun to soak up more rays. There are many heliotropic plants, check out these beautiful arctic poppies doing their thing:
Just as plants can harvest more energy by facing the sun throughout the day, solar installations which are able to track the sun in a similar way produce about 30% more electricity than static solar installations.
Is a solar tracking array right for me?
You might wonder, why aren’t solar tracking panels all over the place and used by all the utility companies on all the big solar farms? Well, solar trackers have higher installation and maintenance costs. They are more complex systems which require special equipment and installation expertise, there are moving parts to maintain over time, and these parts require electricity to operate.
Unless you’ve got a huge parcel of land, a huge chunk of cash, an agreement to sell power at a nice price to your utility company, and plans for an installation larger than 1 megawatt (this is equal to about 2,500 solar panels), these costs simply aren’t worth benefit of tracking technology.
It’s a little twisted that the panels which create electricity also need a chunk of electricity to work well and operate. This is referred to as “parasitic” electricity.
Solar trackers are also heavy, so they are usually only installed on wide swaths of fields, or in special circumstances on very robust commercial properties to take advantage of limited real estate to squeeze more production.
What does the future of solar tracking look like?
A relatively new invention, called a Heliodrive, eliminates the need for parasitic electricity in solar tracking applications. While we have yet to see it work in large scale operations, it showed some promise in field tests and we got a sneak peek of it in action at Solar Power International this September.
At its core is a vacuum sealed tube of paraffin wax attached to a piston. An attached receiver concentrates the sun’s rays and directs them over the course of the day to the wax tube. When the wax melts, the piston is depressed into the base of the unit, creating enough torque to lift the solar array toward the direction of the sun throughout the day. At dusk, the wax hardens again, the piston retreats back into the tube, and the panels reset facing east awaiting the sunrise once again. Here’s a video of it in action.
Such a setup eliminates the need for ongoing maintenance worries and associated costs, and expensive setup. We’ll have to wait and see if this invention can meet the needs of farmers at more value than a traditional tracking or static array.
It’s a pretty elegant solution, and we’re excited to model its benefits and costs. When we do, we’ll update this page. While we’re digging into the numbers, if you are interested in learning more about tracking systems, or want to compare the benefits of a tracking system against a static solar system, fill out our form and we’ll put you in touch with a local installer we trust to help answer your questions.
Last modified: November 1, 2019