Sometimes the best way to gain attention in a crowded market is to go entirely against the grain and carve your own niche, an idea both known to and embraced by tracker manufacturing startup, Sunfolding.
In this regard, the company has found success by eschewing existing single-axis tracker technology, instead creating a solar tracker powered by air that has brought with it $32 million in funding and an ever-growing project pipeline.
The company’s flagship product is the T29 solar tracker, which is powered by air pneumatics. Rather than using a traditional motor, the system instead has two flexible bladders, aligned east-west, contained in a metal housing unit. Over the course of the day, the bladders are inflated, tilting the module above to the opposite direction, allowing it to track the sun.
The solution allows for a significant reduction in parts within the system and an accompanying reduction in weight. The system also improves efficiencies across material distribution, maintenance and installation time, while also allowing for installations on land areas that may have been otherwise unusable.
The pneumatic technology behind the T29 is something Sunfolding is so confident in, that the company recently published a white paper outlining air pneumatics’ unrecognized potential.
Ease of construction
“Because we’ve really simplified the process, we have a lot of advantages on the construction side.” VP of Marketing, Gwen Rose, told pv magazine. “One of our other big value propositions is that we have three unique components in the field and two bolt sizes, so you don’t need any specialized tools and there’s a certain repeatability to the construction steps that really simplifies the whole process… Because we basically have a post, an actuator – which does all of the work that a torque-tube motor, bearing and gearbox would do – and the racking that the module sits on, it’s repeatable and uniform.”
Beyond just improving the simplicity of installations, Rose sees one of the biggest advantages that Sunfolding has over competitors as being the increased amount of terrains the solution can be installed on.
“There’s this underserved opportunity to meet projects that are on challenging terrain,” Rose said. “Most of the companies that we talk to have this underlying assumption that if you’re going to be developing projects on a more challenging topography, that it’s going to cost more. We’ve actually had to teach them that’s not actually the case.”
And that’s where the second aspect of the system’s design comes into play: installation flexibility.
“Because we have this really flexible tracker span, we do hills, we can stair-step and get really close to a road and it doesn’t cost us more to do it,” said Rose. “That’s one of the core values of Sunfolding: because we have this really flexible tracker span, we can do really challenging topographies without a cost associated with it… It’s really a different approach. Show us your site and let us tell you how we’re going to leave it alone, but still get the same amount of capacity as any other tracker, or more.”
This idea of a simple, flexible system is one that has been built not out of curiosity or happenstance, but by a perceived necessity alongside the growth of the solar market.
“We’re running out of large, square, perfectly-flat pieces of land,” said Rose.
What’s next for Sunfolding
The company plans to use its Series B funding to expand its US-based manufacturing and assembly footprint and increase volume purchasing power with suppliers, including vendors in the automotive industry. The additional funds will also support the growth of Sunfolding’s team to execute on more large-scale solar projects concurrently.
Sunfolding’s average project size is in the 10 to 40 MW range right now, with Rose sharing that the ‘sweet spot’ for a project is right around 20 MW.
“That’s really where our focus has been: focusing on scaling up production, scaling up our customer experience team and executing really well on projects in that 10-40 MW range,” Rose said.
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These look like the leveling bags used on 3 ton Motor homes for over 20 years. Not a bad adation of a proven system. Compressed gas, an air solenoid, some tubing and a level sensor 4-20 miliamp output and a controler. They had a system 20 years ago that just used a sealed air container with a piston that as the air got hotter, the piston actuator would be driven out and tip the panel and when the air cooled, it would retract. Problem was, on cold days the air never got hot enough to move the actuator and the solar panels would fail to move to track the sun. Using real time of day clock timer and position registering, this system has less moving parts and needs not electricity to drive motors. The bags will equalize in pressure automaticly and an air flow regulator would limit air flow out to a blown or ruptured bag and the sound of hissing air would alert the maintnence people to where th replacment bag is needed without the failure of the whole system.
It is sad this type technology is not offered to small scale residential solar installations where economical 1 axis tracking could help increase the harvest of solar energy from limited available space.
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