New Solar Crops Tracking the Central Valley's Sun

Nestled among almond and fruit orchards, twelve new DG solar projects in California’s Central Valley are harvesting the sun’s resources with the Sunfolding T29 horizontal single-axis tracker. The trackers feed energy to critical agricultural infrastructure for a dozen different farm sites, offsetting the utility power required for lighting, water pumps, irrigation, and other high-energy-use systems.

 Sunfolding T29 trackers at Moss Ranch, one of the twelve project sites 

Sunfolding T29 trackers at Moss Ranch, one of the twelve project sites 

The projects are part of an innovative energy cooperative, called the Solar Alliance, formed by four farming operations to take advantage of solar-friendly Ag-4 rates. The farmers chose parcels of land across multiple, adjacent sites throughout Madera and Fresno counties.

By keeping the system sizes small and spreading the project sites across land in the two counties, the co-op works around what would otherwise be time and resource-consuming infrastructure upgrades that the local utility requires for large, utility-scale systems. Developed by Nuance Energy, these behind-the-meter projects are prime examples of how solar applications for ag can combine efficient land-use with effective tracking technology to bear the fruit of solar energy’s bounty without the added weight of high cost, high maintenance systems.

Harvesting Yield

 Sunfolding's AirDrive moves the trackers into position

Sunfolding's AirDrive moves the trackers into position

Solar trackers have particular benefits in agricultural applications, allowing for higher energy yield from the small parcels of land allocated for solar harvesting. Trackers yield more energy than fixed-tilt systems, although trackers are historically associated with complicated motor-based machinery that renders them difficult to install and maintain, which can compromise the return on investment for DG projects. However, these twelve projects demonstrate that the Sunfolding T29 -- a motor-free and wear-free tracker -- eliminates the challenging aspects of installing and maintaining solar trackers, allowing farmers to take full advantage of the energy benefits of tracking the sun.

Fast Tracking

The Sunfolding T29 uses Sunfolding’s proprietary AirDrive to move the trackers, resulting in a motor-less tracker design that requires fewer parts to install. Time trials performed at several of the project sites demonstrate the time-saving benefits of motor-less tracking, with installation completed nearly three times faster than motor-based trackers. As the time trials show, Sunfolding’s T29 significantly reduces the most labor-intensive phase of a tracking system’s life cycle, cutting associated labor costs.

“I have been installing trackers for more than a decade,” noted contractor Aaron Adams, who worked on the projects. “I simply haven’t seen a tracker that installs this easily or quickly. There is usually a pretty steep learning curve on installation, once you factor in logistics and assembly for so many parts. But Sunfolding’s tracker blew me away. The crew was able to jump right in and moved through all twelve projects really quickly.” Fewer moving parts represents a major breakthrough in tracker construction, driving down installation costs during this labor-intensive stage.

 Completed AirDrive and module installation at a project site in Visalia

Completed AirDrive and module installation at a project site in Visalia

Productive Hardware Decisions

Another key benefit of the shift in tracking methods with the AirDrive happens in the project design phase; tracker rows can be any size that the project stakeholders require, allowing the system to be sized to site specifics and power requirements. Customizable tracker row length is a unique benefit of the Sunfolding T29, which prevents customers from having to pay for ‘partial’ tracker rows to justify the high cost of a motor. Nuance recognized that this would serve their customers, allowing the Solar Alliance co-op to further trim costs on hardware and bolstering the amount that the members recoup on their investment.

 Sunfolding T29 tracker rows tracking the sun

Sunfolding T29 tracker rows tracking the sun

By allocating small parcels of land to solar harvesting, these farmers are able to cut their operating costs and gain greater energy independence. And they are able to do so with systems that are nearly maintenance free, requiring only a periodic change of an air filter; a drastic reduction in maintenance man-hours and related costs compared to motor-based trackers with complicated machinery. This allows the farmers to keep their focus on the production of their fields, rather than their solar systems.

Low maintenance also translates to the Sunfolding T29’s high performance: “These projects are showing a 99.9% uptime. That kind of performance simply can’t be beat,” noted Nuance Energy’s XXXX. “Our Solar Alliance co-op members get to see their utility bills significantly drop with their Ag-4 rate, without having to consider the added op-ex of maintenance on their systems. We see that as a win-win.”