There are many unique ways to design and install a solar energy system for your property. If you are considering a ground-mounted solar panel installation, you might be considering a solar tracking system so that your panels follow the sun across the sky. This article will examine what installing a solar tracker means and if a tracking system is right for your solar project.
What are solar trackers? Single-axis vs. dual-axis solar trackers
A solar tracking system maximizes your solar system’s electricity production by moving your panels to follow the sun throughout the day, which optimizes the angle at which your panels receive solar radiation. Solar trackers are typically used for ground-mounted solar panels and large, free-standing solar installations like solar trees. They are typically not used in most residential solar projects, but have a place in the utility-scale and commercial/industrial solar market.
When solar panels are exposed to sunlight, the angle at which the sun’s rays meet the surface of the solar panel (known as the “angle of incidence”) determines how well the panel can convert the incoming light into electricity. The narrower the angle of incidence, the more energy a photovoltaic panel can produce. Solar trackers help to minimize this angle by working to orient panels so that light strikes them perpendicular to their surface.
There are two types of solar tracking systems: single-axis and dual-axis.
- A single-axis tracker moves your panels on one axis of movement, usually aligned with north and south. These setups allow your panels to arc from east to west and track the sun as it rises and sets.
- A dual-axis tracker allows your panels to move on two axes, aligned both north-south and an east-west. This type of system is designed to maximize your solar energy collection throughout the year. It can track seasonal variations in the height of the sun in addition to normal daily motion.
Typically, dual-axis trackers (made by companies like AllEarth Renewables) are a much less popular option for solar installations, even among large, utility-scale projects. A situation where dual-axis trackers may be appropriate would be on some commercial properties – due to limited commercial rooftop space for solar panels to be installed, dual-axis trackers that can produce up to 45% more energy than typical static panels can help businesses produce enough power to fuel their operations in a small space. Utility-scale installations usually don’t need dual-axis setups, because they are located on large plots of land without the tight space constraints of a commercial roof space.
Benefits and drawbacks of solar trackers
The biggest benefit of a solar tracking system is that it offers a boost in electricity production. Generally, a solar panel system with a single-axis solar tracker installed sees a performance gain of 25 to 35 percent. A dual-axis tracker bumps performance up by another five to 10 percent.
If you live in a high latitude where the sun’s position in the sky varies dramatically between summer and winter months, a dual-axis tracking system may be a good way to maximize your solar production and collect enough power for your home or property.
However, there are some disadvantages of having a solar tracking system. They tend to have higher installation and maintenance costs. A solar tracker will cost more money up front than a fixed solar panel system because it is a more complex technology and has moving parts. This also leads to the second area of increased cost for solar tracking systems: maintenance. With a more complex system comes more maintenance, which can add up in cost over time.
Another disadvantage of a solar tracker is that they are typically too heavy to be used in rooftop solar projects. If you want a solar panel system that has tracking features, be prepared to install a ground-mounted array.
Is a solar tracking system right for you?
A rooftop installation offers lower costs and doesn’t require dedicated yard space, making it the preferable option for most solar-interested homeowners. As a result, most home solar systems don’t include solar trackers. If you have a south-facing roof, your solar panels will already be oriented to capture maximum sunlight, which reduces the need for a tracking system.
Solar trackers offer the greatest value proposition in high latitude locations due to the yearly movements of the sun. For this reason, solar customers in Alaska and some northern parts of the contiguous U.S. may want to look into including trackers with their system. However, for the majority of US residents, the sun’s movement will not impact your panel production to the point where a tracking system offers significant financial benefits. Most customers are better off installing a rooftop array on a south-facing surface, or a fixed ground mounted system facing south.
Solar tracking systems are also often used in large commercial projects, typically over 1 megawatt (MW). For commercial-scale solar arrays, the long-term benefit of increased production over time is enough to make the initial cost and maintenance fees worth it. Additionally, commercial-scale solar projects are typically ground mounted, making solar trackers a possibility.
Find the right solar setup for your property
Whether you want a ground-mounted solar array with solar trackers or a rooftop system, it is always important to compare your options before moving forward. On the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, you can solicit quotes for both ground-mounted and rooftop solar projects from qualified, pre-vetted installers in your area. If you are interested in a tracking system, simply leave a note on your profile that you would like quotes including solar trackers.