First Solar Snaps Up RayTracker for Tracking Tech

First Solar’s (s FSLR) own solar power generation projects have always been mounted on racks that don’t tilt throughout the day to follow the sun, but the company is exploring the use of trackers. First Solar announced Friday it has bought RayTracker for an undisclosed sum.

First Solar already is already testing RayTracker’s technology in the field, said Alan Bernheimer, a First Solar spokesman. The acquisition doesn’t mean First Solar will use trackers for all or most of its projects. But it does expand First Solar’s menu of project engineering services, Bernheimer said.

“Tracker technology is one of a number of initiatives under development in our Systems group as part of our broader effort to enable lower LCOE (levelized cost of electricity) pricing capability and further differentiate our solution in the market,” Bernheimer wrote in an email.

“We are not announcing any new products at this time. First Solar is still evaluating the effectiveness of tracking and other advanced systems technologies and will announce product offerings through a customer release process when appropriate to do so,” he added.

Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar is a long-time manufacturer of thin-film solar panels, and it jumped into the energy project development business in recent years. The move creates outlets for its solar panels, and the strategy has made it one of the largest project developers in North America.

First Solar has bought several project developers, including paying $297 million for NextLight Renewable Power last year and $400 million for OptiSolar in 2009. These purchases gave First Solar more than 2 GW of projects under development in North America. The company also is heading to China, and said earlier this week that it has teamed up with a Chinese energy company to develop the first 30 MW of what promises to be a 2 GW project in Inner Mongolia.

The benefits of using trackers to point solar panels to the sun have been a source of debate. Proponents say trackers squeeze more power and therefore more money from each installation. Critics say trackers add costs without providing enough returns on investments.

First Solar rival SunPower (s SPWRA) has been a big proponent of using trackers and has been developing its own offerings in that area for years.

Here’s what RayTracker says are the advantages of using its trackers: The single-axis trackers can boost energy production of solar panels by up to 38 percent. The trackers, primarily for ground-mounted installations, tilt the solar panels in the opposite direction of the sun in early morning and late in the day in order to avoid shading.

Each tracking unit, at about 80 feet long, comes with a low-voltage actuator that controls its movement. That’s a setup different from competing trackers, which are linked together row after row in each installation. The company says this distributed system simplifies installation and allows more accurate tracking. Each controller, which contains a custom processor and software, oversees the workings of 12 tracker units.

RayTracker has seen its trackers used in megawatts of projects, including a 5 MW installation in Italy and a 1.1 MW system at The North Face’s distribution center in California.

RayTracker has hired outside manufacturers to produce the equipment, Bernheimer said. Before the acquisition, RayTracker was operating out of Idealab, a technology incubator in the southern California city of Pasadena that was founded by Bill Gross. Idealab, Quercus Trust and Phoenix Fire backed the tracking company.

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Photo courtesy of RayTracker