In 2019, a hailstorm at the Midway Solar project in West Texas caused the destruction of 400,000 of the plant’s 685,000 photovoltaic panels, in one of the most glaring examples of the extreme weather risk to solar energy production. According to the insurer, that short-lived hailstorm caused at least $70 million in damages to the power plant.
Extreme weather events have been increasing due to climate change, as we’re well aware from the hurricanes, snowstorms, and wildfires across the country in recent years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2020 has been one of the worst years ever in this regard, with about 22 “billion-dollar disasters,” or episodes causing $1 billion or more in general damages; that’s higher than the yearly average, since 1980, of 15. Those disasters are a threat to renewable energy plants. Nextracker—the winner of the Established Excellence (5 t0 14 years in business) category of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—is a “solar tracker company” whose new software, NX Navigator, launched last year, aims to curb the damage caused by weather to solar panels, by allowing the panels to be better controlled and monitored by plant owners. Its functions could have avoided much of the damage done to the Texas plant, says CEO Dan Shugar.
Users of the technology can monitor their panels with the software system, remotely viewing a digital map of their farm, down to “granular” detail, that shows the status of the equipment, and the weather activity in the area. Then, solar panel operators can command the system to react based on incoming bad weather. If snow is predicted, users can order the panels to position themselves to reduce the snow cover that prevents them from functioning. If there’s a sudden hailstorm, users can put the panels into “hail-stow” mode, remotely instructing them to turn by 60 degrees into safety, reducing the likelihood of damage. That’s better than keeping them flat, which would increase the likelihood of hail hitting them head on, which causes the most damage.
Hail, which can be unpredictable, is a particular target for this software. According to experiments with Renewable Energy Test Center (RETC)—including so-called “hail cannon tests”—the NX Navigator increases the survivability rate of the panels during storms from 82% to 99%. That’s particularly important as photovoltaic panels are likely to face five to ten bouts of hail in their lifetimes. That’s big, golf-ball-sized hail. And, some studies have suggested that hail is getting bigger.
Ultimately, the technology has the potential to reduce financial damage, but also to increase the energy yield production, which is slowed down by weather events. That’s critical as we shift to clean, green energy (which, ironically, we need more of due to climate change). Nextracker has its solar tracking system installed around the globe, ranging from plants in the U.S., to Dubai, Mexico, Brazil, and Uruguay; about 1.5GW worth of panels have adopted the new software.