Modeling dual-axis solar trackers in Energy3D

Fig. 1: Solar panel arrays in Energy3D
A solar tracker is a system that automatically turns a solar panel or a reflector toward the sun in order to maximize the energy output of a solar power station. It is often said to be inspired by the sunflower.

In general, trackers can be categorized into two types: single-axis trackers and dual-axis trackers. Single-axis trackers have one degree of freedom that acts as an axis of rotation. The axis of rotation of single-axis trackers typically points to true north. Dual-axis trackers, on the other hand, have two degrees of freedom that act as axes of rotation. These axes are typically perpendicular to each other such as those in the altazimuth system. Single-axis trackers cannot exactly follow the sun but dual-axis trackers can.

Dual-axis trackers have been implemented in our Energy3D software for photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, as is shown in the video embedded in this post.

Energy3D has a variety of built-in tools for creating PV array layouts and analyzing their daily and annual yields. Figure 2 shows the comparison of the output of a solar panel rotated by a dual-axis tracker and those of solar panels fixed at different tilt angles (0°, 15°, 30°, 45°, 60°, 75°, and 90°) on March 22, June 22, September 22, and December 22, respectively, in Boston, MA. Not surprisingly, the result shows that the solar panel produces the most energy in June and the least in December.

Fig.2 A tracking PV panel vs. fixed panels at different tilt angles
When analyzing the benefit of using a solar tracker, we found that in June, a fixed panel at the optimal tilt angle produces about 70% of the energy produced by a panel oriented by a dual-axis tracker. That percentage increases to about 75% in March and September and to about 90% in December. This means that the benefit of using a tracker, compared with the maximal output of a fixed panel with the optimal tilt angle, will be significant in the summer but gradually diminish when the winter comes.

Having to manually adjust the tilt angles for a lot of solar panels four times a year sounds like too laborious to be practical. If that is out of the question, it would then be fair to compare the output of a solar panel with a tracker and those fixed at the same tilt angle throughout the year. Figure 3 shows that the total annual yield of a solar panel at the best tilt angle produces only 70% of the energy produced by a solar panel rotated by a tracker. In other words, a solar panel rotated by a tracker generates about 42% more energy compared with a solar panel fixed at the optimal tilt angle on the annual basis.
Fig.3 Annual outputs: tracker vs. fixed

Does the additional energy that solar trackers help generate worth the money (initial investment plus maintenance of moving parts) they cost? You may have heard that, as solar panels get cheaper and cheaper, trackers become less and less favorable. I want to offer a different point of view.

Surely, the return of the investment on solar trackers depends on a number of factors such as the price of solar panels. But one of the most important factors is the solar cell efficiency of the solar panels they rotate. The higher the efficiency is, the more the extra electricity a tracker can yield to offset the cost and make a profit. With the solar cell efficiency for commercial panels breaks record every year (reportedly 31.6% in July 2016), what didn't make economic sense in the past looks lucrative now. The future of the market for solar trackers will only look brighter.

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