Lowering LCOE: Ultimate Goal for Solar Technology
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Lowering LCOE: Ultimate Goal for Solar Technology

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Cas Biekmann By Cas Biekmann | Journalist and Industry Analyst - Thu, 03/11/2021 - 16:09

You can watch the video of this panel here.

There are few industries where technology is growing as steadily as in solar energy. The panel,Innovation is Key: Progress and Opportunity in Solar Technology,” featured key leaders from some of the sector’s most important companies, including HUAWEI, NEXTracker and Jinko Solar. Moderated by RER Energy’s Country Manager Carla Ortiz, the panelists expressed their views, agreeing that bringing down costs for operations remains the most important aspect in the industry.

In Mexico, the solar sector is going through significant changes. With governmental policy changes dominating the environment, the trend of developing large utility-scale projects is fading away. Nevertheless, distributed generation (DG) does not suffer as much from regulatory changes because below the 0.5MW threshold, no permits are needed. Taking into account this developing trend, Ortiz posed asked panelists what this shift toward DG meant for solar technology in the country.

Alberto Cuter, General Manager LATAM & Italy of Jinko Solar, explained that photovoltaic technology trends have already changed. Now, bifacial panels dominate the utility-scale environment but they are unlikely to be applied in C&I-focused DG projects. “Because of spatial limitations, optimizing panels on a slightly smaller scale makes more sense in this area.” Cuter said that mono perc panels with P-type or N-type cells would likely become the most popular. In general, efficiency of photovoltaic panels is increasing sharply. “It is now normal to see panels with above 21 percent of efficiency,” said Cuter.

Inverters are the core business of HUAWEI, said Kevin Gutiérrez, Sales Vice President of the company’s Inverter Business. One of the main developments the Chinese technology giant has been focusing on for the past few years is AI. “We have implemented AI in all our products for a few years now,” Gutiérrez explained. Through AI, operations and maintenance (O&M) become much easier and safer to boot. Especially in smaller, scattered C&I installations, this provides advantages. “Here, we often see many small installations. Therefore, monitoring becomes crucial toward efficient operations,” he said, highlighting that AI can detect faults, which in turn reduces costs and improves overall efficiency.

For Alejo López, Vice President Latin America of NEXTracker, the trend to move away from the utility scale poses a challenge for the company’s solar trackers. “Our product is designed for larger scale projects,” he acknowledges, “although smaller projects have also found its characteristics attractive and beneficial.” NEXTracker focuses more on adapting its solution to the higher output that bifacial modules offer. Achieving optimal safety during challenging wind and climate conditions is another core element to address. “Improving software is also crucial,” said López, as it facilitates maintenance. Vertical panels are also quickly gaining ground in the market. Nevertheless, López points out, with the current situation this is not developing as fast in Mexico.

Cuter concurs that Mexico’s solar utility-scale landscape is facing challenges. “Mexico used to be the most important market but now it is slowing down.” Regardless, bifacial modules will remain a staple for the fewer large projects being developed. Bifacial panels are a little bit more costly than monofacial panels but offer a much higher efficiency. High demand created a bit of a shortage in the glass needed to manufacture the product. But whatever technology is used, Cuter said that at the end of the day, it needs to work optimally to reduce the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE).

In this regard, all panelists agreed, pointing out that all factors in a power plant need to work together to lower LCOE as much as possible: “The interaction of the components of a project is key to its efficiency,” Ortiz said. “It is of the highest importance,” concurred Gutiérrez. This is why HUAWEI focuses only on string invertors, which can control the voltage panels transmit efficiently, among other benefits: “We can now send energy at higher voltages with fewer cables and equipment. This reduces project CAPEX without affecting the quality of the technology,” he said.

Due to the key role LCOE plays, participants pointed out that their respective R&D efforts are aimed at lowering these costs even further. Cuter highlighter how far solar costs have dropped in recent years. “This has been a benefit for the world´s solar industry, but there is still work to be done,” he continued, adding that a race to the bottom for solar panel prices does make operations for OEMs in that area somewhat unstable.

“A project’s success indeed depends on how low its LCOE can go,” López agrees. Therefore, other stages in the project, such as O&M play, an important role, too. To deal with difficult climate conditions, remote and real-time diagnostics are important to enhance uptime and reduce downtime for solar plants. “Getting the tracker to move modules in the most secure position as fast as possible is therefore important,” he concluded.

Despite disruptions in technology, not every shift occurs via intense changes. A lot of solar technology is applied because it resembles the “low-hanging fruit.” Cuter and Gutiérrez both see storage as a great opportunity due to the possibilities to inject power into the grid for stability and save costs during peak demand. Gutiérrez considers battery storage beneficial, whereas Cuter points out that green hydrogen or hydropower can be used to enhance the penetration of solar, as well. López agreed but pointed out that solar companies had a great opportunity to add value by making their products compatible with others. “This is difficult because the offer in the market is large. Nonetheless, this can prove a major benefit for clients,” said López.

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