Wouldn’t it be nice to have a solar panel that absorbs 100% sunlight and convert it into energy? Well, that is a dream we all hope will one day come true. Nevertheless, manufacturers continue to increase their solar panel efficiency with new designs. The development of automatic solar panel tracking systems is one of them.
These solar panel tracking systems follow the sun’s path to absorb more sunlight and produce more energy. However, the price tag of the solar tracker is higher than fixed solar panels.
So, are solar panel trackers worth it? Solar trackers are generally not worth the investment for most residential installs, even though they help produce more electricity. Installing more solar panels would cost less than including a tracking system because solar panels are cheaper than ever. But solar trackers are typically worth it for commercial buildings.
How much difference does a solar tracker make? Worry not; in this article, I explain all you need to know about solar trackers, the cost, and the pros and cons.
If you are interested in exploring the different types of solar tracking systems and how they work, please read this article.
What Are Solar Trackers?
Solar trackers are devices often attached to solar panels and follow the sun across the sky. The sun moves from east to west emitting rays that solar panels convert into renewable energy. Most fixed solar panels are fitted to face east or west- the best direction for solar panels– but their efficiency is compromised when the sun rises or sets.
Solar panel manufacturers thought of ways to enhance solar panels’ efficiency- enter solar panel sun tracker kit.
Furthermore, solar trackers are used with ground mount solar systems and rooftop-mounted trackers. The trackers help the panels move with the sun at optimal angles, enabling them to generate energy from when sunlight hits the earth or when darkness sets in.
However, the movement of solar tracking systems depends on the type. So far, the market has three types of solar trackers: manual, passive, and active solar tracking systems.
Video below shows how solar trackers work.
Let us briefly discuss these systems.
1- Manual Solar Tracking System
The manual system uses manual labor to move the solar panels at certain times of the day as the sun moves west.
The manual solar system is not practical in regions with high labor costs because you will need to hire someone to monitor the sun’s movement and turn the solar panels accordingly.
2- Passive Solar Tracking System
Passive trackers are fitted with a special liquid with a low boiling point in a bulb.
When this liquid is exposed to solar radiation, it expands and causes an imbalance, thus tilting the panel towards the sun’s rays. They are often used with single-axis solar trackers.
3- Active Solar Tracking Systems
Active solar trackers are moved by hydraulic cylinders or motors- an outside power source. The motors provide power that moves the PV panels to face the sun.
While this automatic solar panel tracking system is more convenient than the manual system, the motors can easily break.
The maintenance cost is often high over the system’s lifespan. They are also complex, thus increasing their installation costs.
But solar panel tracking systems can also be classified depending on the direction in which they move: single-axis or dual-axis tracker.
Single-Axis Solar Tracker
These trackers rotate or move in one direction- from east to west according to the sun’s direction. They are simple to install and maintain and are used in utility-scale projects.
And single-axis solar trackers are more efficient than stationary solar panels, producing approximately 25% more energy.
Dual-Axis Solar Tracker
Unlike single-axis, which only tracks the sun from east to west, dual-axis solar tracker also moves from north to south. The tracker can tilt the solar panels in all directions to capture the sun’s rays optimally.
Dual-axis solar trackers are often used in residential and small commercial solar projects with limited space. They also have increased efficiency, producing over 40% more energy than stationary solar panels.
If you want to learn the difference between single axis and dual axis solar trackers, I encourage you to check out this article.
How Much Will You Pay For a Solar Tracker?
Installing solar trackers can significantly increase your photovoltaic cost. The average cost of solar panels and installation ranges from $12,000 to $35,000, depending on the type and the model. Solar panel costs are also influenced by energy usage, geographical area, your home’s sun exposure, and the size of your panels.
For instance, buying and installing a 4-kW standard ground-mounted solar system could cost approximately $13,000.
But if you add an automatic solar panel tracking system, the cost could go up from $500 to $1000 per panel.
So how much will it cost you to include a single-axis solar tracking system? The project will push the cost to around $20,000, which is 57% higher than a person installing fixed solar panels. And remember that a single-axis solar tracker increases solar power output by 35%.
What of a dual-axis solar tracking system? Installing a dual-axis solar tracker will push costs to approximately $26,000. That is double the cost of a fixed-roof solar panel or ground-mounted system!
Are Solar Panel Trackers Worth The Investment?
Solar panel trackers are meant to increase the efficiency and output of your panels. They automatically move the solar panels to face the sun directly, thus producing the maximum possible energy.
This looks like an excellent idea, right? Everyone would want to get maximum power from their panels. However, as we have seen, it comes with a heavy price tag. It would be worth it if the return on investment (ROI) were high, but that is not the case.
If you run a small business or own a residential, investing in solar panel trackers is not worth it.
If you do some basic calculations, you realize that solar panel trackers have no value proposition for residential and small businesses.
Solar tracker panels could make more sense if solar panels cost like they did 15 years ago. In California, solar panel costs range from $3.00 and $4.00 per watt in 2022, which makes installing fixed solar panels for your residential cheaper.
Consider this example to bring this point home: Assume you want to install 15 ground-mounted panels with a 300-watt power rating. This solar panel system would cost you around $14,500.
How much will it cost if you include a single-axis solar tracker in the system? You will part with an additional $500 per module, leading to a $7,500 increase in costs for the tracking system. And installing a double-axis solar tracker would amount to an extra $15,000! That is a double increment!
And we have not factored in operations and maintenance costs.
Yes, these solar tracking systems will increase your solar power output more than fixed systems. However, savings from a solar tracker may not compensate for the enormous added costs.
The double-axis solar tracker costs an additional $15,000 and saves only $440 annually, which takes its payback period to 20 years! Do you think it is worth it?
What Are The Alternative For Using Solar Trackers?
Instead of investing all this cash on the solar tracker, you can add 6 more solar panels to your fixed system and produce the same amount of energy you would generate with a dual-axis system.
And the beauty is that you will only spend an additional $5,850 for the 6 panels. And you can see the amount of money you will save (15,000-5,850 = $9,150!
Therefore, I will not recommend investing in a solar tracking system for homeowners and small businesses that do not use a lot of energy. The maths show that a fixed solar system is more financially viable that tracking systems.
The solar tracking system will only make sense for big commercial and remote industrial projects where building huge fixed solar panel systems is challenging.
Advantages Of Solar Panel Trackers
Although single-axis or dual-axis solar trackers are costly, they have their benefits. Consider some of these benefits.
1- Solar Panel Trackers Generate More Electricity
Since solar panel trackers move the panels to follow the sun, they absorb more sun rays and convert them into energy throughout the day.
You will likely increase your power production by between 35% and 45%, thus helping to reduce your electricity bill.
2- Solar Panel Trackers Are Helpful For Those In a Time-Of-Use Plan
Some states have utilities that offer Time-of-Use (TOU) rates for households that generate solar power. These utilities can buy the excess power you generate at a higher rate during peak time.
But what is Time-of-Use (TOU) rate? Time-of-Use pricing is an electric rate plan that adjusts your electricity price based on when you are using it (Source: EnergySage)
You can produce more power during these peak hours and sell if you have a single- or dual-axis solar tracker.
3- Solar Panel Trackers Take Less Space
If you have a solar tracking system, you will require a few solar panels to produce more power, thereby saving space.
Disadvantages Of Solar Panel Trackers
Like anything in life, solar panel trackers also come with a few disadvantages. Here are the main disadvantages of solar panel trackers.
4- Solar Panel Trackers Can Be Relatively Expensive
Solar panel tracking systems cost more than stationary panels because of the additional parts and the labor cost for preparing the site and installing the trackers.
5- Solar Panel Trackers Have High Maintenance Costs
Solar panel trackers, especially dual-axis trackers, can easily break or stop functioning. You will need to hire a professional to examine it and make the necessary improvements.
On the other hand, fixed solar panels have low maintenance. You may only need to buy solar panel cleaning equipment and solutions, which do not cost much.
6- Solar Panel Trackers Are Large And Heavy
Solar panel trackers are often heavy and do not suit rooftops well, meaning you will be forced to install them on the ground.
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Solar tracker systems will considerably increase your solar power output. However, they are costly and need high maintenance.
So, are solar panel trackers worth it? Financial calculations show that they are not worth the investment for residential and small business operations. You can increase your power output by increasing the number of panels in your fixed solar system at a lower price than investing in solar trackers.