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Sites, market conditions, O&M drive tech decisions

The move by hydropower leader Statkraft to acquire Solarcentury in late 2020 brought solar front and center to its renewables strategy. Christopher West, the head of central engineering for Statkraft’s solar engineering division, says that flexibility and the ability to adapt to specific site and market conditions are dictating project development in Europe.

From Huawei Special Edition 2021

How would you describe Statkraft’s engagement with solar project development in Europe in 2021?

Statkraft has been developing solar for a while now – it never really stopped. But obviously it’s accelerated now because Statkraft acquired Solarcentury. The move brought quite a good pipeline of projects in with it, and a lot of project development capability. Developing and building the solar farms this year is very attractive for Statkraft.

In the past Statkraft was particularly active in developing some of the quite early floating PV projects in Europe. As an engineer, what is your expectation for that application? Will it remain a niche?

Though the vast majority of our projects are ground mounted, Statkraft has some good synergies regarding floating PV as well, because obviously, Statkraft constructs hydroelectric dams, and they provide a really interesting space to build a floating PV project. Of course, you’re always going to be limited a little bit by how many hydroelectric dams exist.

You say ground mounted on tracking; my understanding is that there’s kind of a latitude at which tracking stops making sense in Europe. Is that right?

Every site is different. Every country has particular grid constraints, land constraints, and the situation with capex and price – namely, the differential between trackers and fixed structure costs at any point in time. You have to analyze the effect on cost of electricity: like bifacial versus monofacial, whether it’s worth deploying it in a certain area.

In some areas, even in Northern Europe, it can make sense [to deploy tracking] under certain conditions, and in other situations, it doesn’t make sense. The answer is always that you have to look at the site and the conditions around it to determine whether fixed or tracking is going to be your best option.

You’re saying PV development in Europe in 2021 is very contingent on site, market, tariff, and PPA conditions, or even all of these different factors combined?

Yes, and the technology has been changing a lot over the last few years. The fact that bifacial modules are now becoming more and more common is an example, and that impacts your decision on tracker or fixed. This is true also of the larger-format modules. And we can’t forget storage, which is a whole new thing coming into the equation. It’s complex, but it’s an exciting time.

We’ve discussed FPV, bifacial technology, large format modules and energy storage, how would you describe working with Huawei to meet these technical challenges?

The things we value in all our key suppliers are a quick and effective response to our requests and good technical support in our target markets, as well as an openness to work with us in developing solutions to many of the challenges we’ve discussed today.

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In terms of power conversion, string versus central inverters is an important choice. For developers, what factors are you considering when you make that choice?

Historically, a large number of Solarcentury projects, which is now a part of Statkraft, have been string inverter projects – something like 90% or so. We were one of the early adopters of string inverter technology, using it in the U.K. before it had been widely adopted. And the reason why Solarcentury went so strongly with string inverters at the time was really thinking ahead from an O&M point of view.

One of the advantages you can have with a string inverter is if it breaks, you can simply replace it. You don’t have to actually repair it, and you can replace it quite quickly. That means that your availability is increased. That flexibility remains even if, for example, a manufacturer goes bust and you need another type of inverter to fill the void.

Solarcentury made the decision at a time when the price differential [between string and central] was quite big, and even then we still sort of came down on the string side.

What are the other considerations when you’re selecting a vendor for power electronics?

It’s really important that they [inverter suppliers] have products which are compatible with all the other components we want to use. What is quite a big issue these days is the new types of modules. Up until last year or so, we just had the sort of 72-cell modules, and everything was quite standardized with the voltages and the currents that you’d be expecting, and manufacturers were designing inverters to match those.

Now, there’s a whole bunch of different PV modules of all shapes and sizes. And the inverter designs weren’t necessarily optimized to this new generation of modules. Now they are available, and the modules continue to change – so it’s a bit of a moving target. The fact that they [inverter manufacturers] can respond quickly to changes in the market and changes in technology is really important.

You mentioned energy storage. How would you describe the amount of activity there in terms of adding storage to PV projects in Europe at the moment?

We have a pipeline of projects that take into account energy storage which are actively under development. We have very high hopes and a high level of confidence in energy storage. We have to consider some sort of storage more and more as solar and wind begin to saturate the grid, because we need to be able to smooth out the peaks.

The batteries are getting cheaper and cheaper. Now it’s starting to become very obvious that we can deploy batteries and actually gain an advantage.

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Source: pv magazine