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‘Investment success in R&D offers us high return’: Nextracker on business strategy and accommodating advanced PV modules

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Nextracker aims to deliver products from a manufacturing plant to projects within only 24-48 hours. Image: PV Tech

US solar tracker manufacturer Nextracker has been expanding its manufacturing capacity in the US and overseas, as covered by PV Tech. More recently, it announced its results for the financial year ended on 31 March 2024, as its backlog and adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation (EBITDA) enjoyed impressive growth. 

Therefore, PV Tech Premium talks to Howard Wenger, president of Nextracker, about the company’s business, expansion plan and research and development (R&D) spending. 

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According to the company’s latest financial results, Nextracker’s R&D expenses increased to US$13.1 million in Q4 2023 from US$8.34 million in Q1 2023. Nextracker’s yearly R&D expenses increased from US$21.6 million in FY 2023 to US$42.4 million in FY 2024.

“Our investment success in R&D has netted us a really high return. Our R&D groups and our product teams have come up with an assortment of new technology, both software and hardware, and they are driving the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) down,” Wenger says. 

He adds that Nextracker is “extremely focused” on LCOE, as all of the company’s R&D programmes are centred on initial costs, lifetime operating costs and the lifetime energy costs. 

“Financially we’re solid and this enables us to continue investing in value and R&D,” he says. 

Nextracker boasts about 500 patents and patent pending. This amount of intellectual properties makes the products of Nextracker “very differentiated in competition.”

For example, Nextracker launched NX Horizon Hail Pro last year, claiming to offer industry-first solar tracker solutions to the threat of hailstorms for utility-scale solar installations. The Hail Pro suite also includes optional hardware and service features. Projects facing severe hail risks can opt for Hail Pro 75, which boosts NX Horizon’s maximum hail stow angle from 60° to 75° – shown to increase panel glass survival to more than 90% against three-inch ice balls in lab tests.

Expansion plan 

Nextracker has been expanding its manufacturing capacity in recent months. For example, it acquired US-based solar foundation company Ojjo to expand its utility-scale solar foundations business, as reported by PV Tech yesterday. The acquisition will see Nextracker combine its solar tracker technology with Ojjo’s foundation technology, with Ojjo’s technology being offered alongside Nextracker’s NX Horizon solar tracker and software solutions.

The combination of technologies will enable engineering procurement construction companies (EPCs) and solar power plant developers to benefit from a more complete, integrated solution for various soil conditions when developing, designing and installing their projects.

Earlier this year, Nextracker completed an expansion of its manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania, US, increasing the annual manufacturing capacity to 4GW. The expansion plan was completed in collaboration with steel processing provider JM Steel, a subsidiary of infrastructure product provider Jennmar.

The company also signed an agreement with Australian tube and pipe manufacturer Orrcon Steel to manufacture components of trackers in Australia. According to the company, “critical steel components” will be produced from BlueScope’s steel coil at Orrcon Steel’s Salisbury Tube mill in Brisbane. BlueScope is a steel supplier and manufacturer and owns Orrcon Steel.

Wenger says localising manufacturing capacity is key to the company’s business. 

“It lowers costs by getting our product very close to market and projects. We will continue to accelerate our supply chain footprint and manufacturing capability all over the world,” he says.

In the future, Nextracker wants to deliver products from a manufacturing plant to projects within only 24-48 hours. 

“You can expect more announcements in the US. We now have over 70 manufacturing plants globally, which is more than triple what it was two years ago,” Wenger adds. 

India is another market that Wenger highlighted in the interview. With two manufacturing plants in India, the country is crucial to Nextracker’s global business since Nextracker is producing its solar tracker systems with over 80% domestic content for utility-scale power generation projects in India.

Also, Nextracker’s annual manufacturing capacity in India reached 10GW as of 2023. 

Wenger adds that the company has inaugurated a new centre in India, housing R&D facilities and training local installers.  

“We have a big team, local R&D and training, and local manufacturing capabilities, as these are crucial to going after a market. We’re in a great position to develop business there,” Wenger says. 

Bigger, better modules and more advanced systems 

Currently, modules with larger formats and higher power generation capacity are getting more common. Asked whether Nextracker can accommodation these changes in modules, Wenger says the company’s NX Horizon tracker can accommodate any type of module.

“Of course, the more harmonised the module formats are, the better. It is because it leads to more standardisation which can drive costs down,” he says. 

“We are seeing more innovations coming from the module industry and different module formats. We welcome that, especially bifacial and efficiency improvements. We’ve actually designed our system to generate more energy from the backside than any other tractor on the market,” Wenger adds.

Lastly, Wenger agrees that AI and machine learning will continue to play a big role in trackers, but human-based engineering is still going to dominate and be the most critical part when designing tracker systems.

“Human ingenuity is going to be the most critical feature in developing the next generation of trackers,” he concludes.

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