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Industry 4.0 Summitt

Manchester Central (M2 3GX)

28/02/2018 - 01/03/2018

Industry 4.0, the 4th industrial revolution, smart manufacturing, digital factories…these are (more)

Drives & Controls 2018

NEC, Birmingham(B40 1NT)

10/04/2018 - 12/04/2018

Drives & Controls exhibition is recognised as the UK’s leading show for Automation, Power (more)

UKIVA Machine Vision Conference

Arena MK(MK1 1ST)

16/05/2018

Following a successful launch in 2017, UKIVA Machine Vision Conference returns to Arena MK, Milton Keynes, (more)

Sun seekers

Solar tracking technology can increase the power output of the panels by up to 40% by ensuring that each panel is correctly aligned to the sun. Phil Burge of SKF looks at new solutions that can improve tracking efficiency to within 0.1 degree at all times.

Despite its many recent advances, solar power is still a relatively new industry and new solutions are still being developed. It was not until the late 20th century, when environmental issues scaled the political agenda, that we saw serious investment in renewable energy such as solar power. However, in the short time that serious investment has been made available, a large and impressive portfolio of renewable industries has developed, with wind, wave, tidal and solar power all now making great strides. Inevitably, the rate of expansion has sometimes outpaced the ability of engineers to maximise efficiency, but as support for renewables grows and engineers from different sectors of each industry work together, these sustainable solutions have grown ever more effective.

Solar power is one of the fastest growing energy sources and one that has recently benefited from some efficient innovations that are making this solution an increasingly economical one. This success is welcome, considering the increasing costs of retrieving fast depleting non-renewable fossil fuel sources and the possible health risks and external costs of nuclear power, as highlighted by recent incidents at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. In addition, these innovations in solar technology are protecting revenues and relieving pressure on operators and engineers who are fighting to make the technology viable.

Crucially, the designers and engineers behind these solutions have addressed the problem of backlash. To maximise the effectiveness of solar tracking, you must minimise backlash; a drive system with too much backlash will rock back and forth beyond the required tolerance, gathering little energy or, in some situations, none at all. Robust electromechanical actuators are required here to deliver an increased level of reliability and drive protection, and these are now available in a form designed specifically for solar tracking systems.

For example, the SKF Solar Linear Actuator increases accuracy and efficiency in tracking the sun and cuts the maintenance costs demanded by alternative solutions. This actuator can be used with photovoltaics, concentrating photovoltaics or concentrating solar power systems. The actuators are virtually maintenance-free, requiring no downtime for part changes or re-lubrication, thereby reducing maintenance costs.

Azimuth movement also needs to be supported and this function has historically required drives that have been maintenance-intensive. However, solar hubs are now available that require no downtime for part changes and do not need re-lubrication. Today's best solar hubs from the market-leaders are built for harsh environments and extended service life, helping energy companies to reduce operational costs. For example, in the SKF Solar Hub, sealing has been optimised compared with existing market standard solutions, to provide minimal grease loss during operation, which not only reduces the need for re-lubrication but also minimises environmental impact. Optimal grease has been selected for this slow-moving application, enabling improvements in performance, while the complete design is protected in a sealed housing, rated with an ingress protection level of IP65, for reliable performance even in extreme conditions.

Although the developing renewable energy industries must, perhaps unfairly, justify their existence in the face of existing ones, innovations such as those described here are providing vital support. Demand for robust new solutions is great because not only must solar tracking technology ensure that each panel is correctly aligned, it must also ensure that these systems can maximise generating performance over a lifetime of 20 years or more, with minimum operating, maintenance and downtime costs.  

As solar technology grows and develops, practical experience of the machinery begins to build a clearer picture of precisely which parts of the system are likely to fail or perform inefficiently and how to manage maintenance proactively, and this will enable the industry to build in efficiency at the outset. Building on the growing bank of knowledge that we have already amassed, engineers are now creating a larger catalogue of reliable components and practices for the effective design and maintenance of solar tracking systems. As a result, the future looks increasingly bright for our sun as a major player in the production of sustainable energy.
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