NAVASOTA, Texas—Behind an unmarked door in a building in southeast Texas, a Bond-esque Q-like vibe emerges. But the lab is no knockoff from a 007 flick. Instead of dagger shoes, mini-rocket cigarettes and Dentonite toothpaste, the style is more innovative and less lethal.

A small team of innovators for energy service company NOV Inc. works on potentially cost-saving, efficiency-gaining technologies. In one corner, wind energy research is underway involving kites. In another area, a crane typically used for oil and gas operations is being modified for use in onshore wind. Then, there is a foldable solar panel, its symmetry reminiscent of a butterfly, that failed to take off.

Among the purposes of the lab is to “fail quickly, get your learnings and move on,” NOV Commercialization Director Nick Morriss told Hart Energy.

NOV is known for its oilfield rig, wellbore, completion and production technologies. However, like some of its peers, the company has become active in the renewables space, including solar energy. Bolstered by falling solar panel prices, government subsidies and improved technology, solar capacity in the U.S. has grown. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show installed U.S. solar capacity surpassed 125 gigawatts (GW) by August 2023.

For NOV, the focus now is on solar trackers and racking systems. During a tour, Morriss explained NOV’s research on shocks and solar dampers on rods to prevent vibration on solar panels. At another station, a data logging simulation is underway, sensing potential maintenance and performance issues that could surface during the component's 30-year lifetime.

NOV Commercialization Director Nick
NOV Commercialization Director Nick Morriss describes how solar trackers work. (Source: Hart Energy)

Looking outside at an array of solar panels, Morriss spoke about how solar trackers have evolved and what NOV is doing to lower costs. Its dynamic stabilization used on the single-axis tracker, which moves the solar panel based on the sun’s position, “provides familiar damping characteristics when unlocked, and secures the structure via proven locking technology during design-critical events,” resulting in a lighter system mass per megawatt, NOV said on its website. That, in turn, lowers costs. The lighter system shaves off millimeters of steel, which adds up over the vast number of solar panels in a field. The “secret sauce,” Morriss said, is how close to the margin you can get.

Tapping into synergies

NOV sees synergies between its legacy business in drilling rigs, completions equipment and offshore with renewables. Think, for example, of motors, gearboxes, control systems and other machinery. For NOV, it’s about finding those synergies and applying them to a new space, according to Morriss.

“Ultimately, what it comes down to is that we’re experts in energy and building machines that go into that equation. It doesn’t really matter the source,” Morriss said. He added, “We’ve got a lot of technical capabilities and sophistication that we can bring to the equation.”

Speaking to Hart Energy’s Oil and Gas Investor in 2023, NOV CEO Clay Williams spoke about the company’s role in the energy transition. Besides solar and wind, NOV offers technology solutions in biogas, carbon capture, deep sea mineral extraction geothermal and hydrogen.

“The first plank of our strategy is to invest in ways to reduce the environmental impact of conventional oil and gas operations,” Williams said. “The second plank of our strategy has been to invest in actual technologies that can bring about the energy transition with low- or no-carbon technologies: wind, solar, carbon capture and sequestration, biogas, geothermal and nuclear.”

The service company jumped into wind with its acquisition of GustoMSC in 2018, positioning NOV’s marine and construction business unit to enter the offshore wind installation vessels market. Among the company’s latest technologies is the Enhydra floating wind installation vessel concept, which features a modular and integrated design for deepwater installation of floaters, mooring systems and dynamic cables.

NOV entered the solar fixed tilt and tracking space in 2019 and acquired the intellectual property of Sunlink and Corosolar in early 2022. “Since then, we’ve been in the process of basically upgrading those products to our standard,” he said, noting panels have gotten bigger and technology has evolved as the industry moved toward solar trackers. “So rather than mounting the rows in a southernly facing direction, you mount them in a north-south direction and they rotate east to west throughout the course of the day. They basically point the panels at the sunlight to increase the solar yield.”

Solar panels at NOV facility
Solar panels at NOV's facility in Navasota, Texas. (Source: Hart Energy)

Branching out

The trackers and rack systems aren’t as sophisticated as control systems that go into drilling rigs, he said, but long-term support is essential. “These solar farms are  designed to be 30-year assets.”

Data released recently by the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie showed the solar sector added 6.5 GW of new electric generating capacity during third-quarter 2023, up 35% from a year earlier. The report forecasted the sector would see 55% growth by the end of 2023, with growth expected to continue but slow to 10% in 2024 due in part to interconnection constraints.

Having launched fixed tilt and tracker products aiming for large utility-scale projects, NOV is looking to expand deeper into the solar market.

Forming partnerships is key. Morriss recalled noticing how similar the solar world was to oil and gas. He compared NextEra Energy to Exxon Mobil and Chevron as operators. They rely on engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) companies to build their projects, but those EPC companies don’t fabricate steel structures; they rely on solar tracker manufacturers to build them. The EPC firms are akin to service companies like SLB, Halliburton and Transocean, while the solar tracker companies are akin to the NOVs and the Weatherfords—the companies that build equipment for the oil field, Morriss said.

“When we think about expanding and building out more solar and things like market share, … I am looking for partnerships with EPCs where my goal is to make their business more profitable,” he said.

That could be enabled via technology, lowering costs or a combination of both. “We’ve been very successful with that in oil and gas and want to push that into the solar world as well.”