There’s more controversy brewing between the two global leaders in the solar tracker space.
A lawsuit Array Technologies filed this month alleges “threats, intimidation and coercion” from competitor NEXTracker and CEO Dan Shugar in attempts to seize market share. According to Array, NEXTracker and parent company Flex are working to undermine the verification of its technologies from independent certification companies TÜV Rheinland PTL and DNV GL.
“Defendants have used threats against those engineering firms to suppress conclusions favorable to Array and its technology,” reads the suit, filed in the district court of Northern California.
Array said it filed the suit to stop and prevent what it sees as poor behavior that could impact third-party analysis.
“We stand behind the integrity of these independent engineer firms, and we’d like to let the facts speak clearly for themselves,” said an Array spokesperson. “When you’re suppressing independent scientific data it’s really…putting an ugly spin on what should be a growing and fantastic resource for us as a global community.”
NEXTracker called the legal challenge “frivolous,” in a statement to Greentech Media.
Allegations of interference
The trouble started back in September 2017, according to the suit, just ahead of Solar Power International, the industry’s largest conference in North America that’s held annually each fall.
Array, the No. 2 global tracker company, was highlighting the results of a TÜV report that showed the tracker technology Array uses “had a significantly lower risk of catastrophic failure, had lower operation and maintenance costs and thus had a higher net present value” than other system designs.
Upon its release, the report garnered criticism from NEXTracker.
“In our view the initial report failed basic standards of objectivity and thoroughness typical of independent engineer reports,” NEXTracker said in a statement to GTM.
After NEXTracker expressed those concerns to TÜV executives, the company retracted the report and placed it under review. TÜV did not respond to requests for comment.
Now, Array says NEXTracker and Shugar have also attempted to “suppress conclusions favorable to Array” from a forthcoming study Array contracted with DNV GL, which declined to comment for this story. NEXTracker affirms the company contacted TÜV with its concerns, but it denies any interference in Array’s relationship with DNV GL.
Market share at stake
Both NEXTracker and Array declined to comment on whether they plan to settle the case or see it through litigation. It’s not the first time the two companies have sparred: NEXTracker took legal action to end the promotion of the TÜV report and in 2017 Array sued a former employee and NEXTracker over alleged violations of a non-compete agreement.
Though each company asserts that its position in the most recent suit is designed to defend objectivity and third-party analysis, market share is also at stake.
“In terms of protecting their market share, companies have taken or are willing to take dramatic action,” said Lindsay Cherry, a solar analyst at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables who specializes in balance-of-system components.
About 21 percent of global solar installations in 2018 used trackers, a technology that moves panels in time with the sun. According to Cherry, trackers are more common in markets with high system prices, good incentives and high sun exposure. In the U.S., for instance, 70 percent of installations in 2018 used trackers and WoodMac forecasts that number will climb to 76 percent by the end of this year.
Though NEXTracker holds the majority of global market share among tracker vendors, 30 percent to Array’s 12 percent in 2018, the two competitors are much closer in major tracker markets like the U.S. and Australia.
Array picked up market share last year in the U.S., increasing from 28 percent to 31 percent. NEXTracker’s share fell from 58 percent in 2017 to 48 percent in 2018. In Australia, however, NEXTracker claimed 44 percent of the market last year and bumped Array from the leader spot.
Tracker technology face-off
The two companies rely on different technologies, a central point of tension in the squabble. While Array uses a linked row system with one motor and controller to rotate multiple rows of solar panels, NEXTracker’s system uses individual motors and controllers for each row.
NEXTracker finds fault with claims that Array’s system is superior.
“There are a variety of ways to track the sun,” said NEXTracker in a statement. “The solar industry benefits from diverse solutions from qualified companies.”
According to Cherry, however, the market looks to be moving toward unlinked, independent rows akin to NEXTracker’s system.
But Array says its recent stand is not about technology. Rather it's on behalf of independent third-party analysis — which happens to highlight “the superiority of the tracker architecture Array uses."
“That’s the crux of it: We should all be free to go out and run independent analysis and then promote those claims in the industry,” said Array. “It’s incredibly important to use unbiased third-party independent analysis to...better [not only] our product, but the industry as a whole.”
The company did not define its hopes for relief aside from an injunction prohibiting NEXTracker from contacting DNV GL regarding the coming report and attorney fees and costs. In the suit Array also notes that its contract with TÜV exceeded $75,000.