Streamlining Grid Interconnections: Cooperation Over Competition in an Increasingly Renewable World
At a time when the U.S. PV pipeline is bursting with a record 37.9 GWdc of utility-scale solar; when elected officials and media outlets appear increasingly responsive to public demand for action on climate change; when that is the state of affairs in 2019, it is tempting to assume that distributed generation (DG) photovoltaics have finally been embraced across the country as a whole.
While huge leaps of progress have been made, there is still work to be done. Last year, DG solar accounted for just 0.7% of all U.S. grid power generation. Limited market penetration has allowed a number of states to refrain from adopting statewide grid interconnection standards, an oversight that encourages decentralized decision-making and sustains the Wild West mentality that’s characteristic of emergent industries. When statewide standards are adopted, they are just as likely to discourage widespread adoption of PV as encourage it.
So earlier this year, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) added a new high-level overview on DG interconnection to its growing collection of research on the subject. NREL is careful to avoid choosing sides, stating, “Interconnection review and approval processes are crucial to the continued stability of the grid but are also ripe for improvement in many areas of the country.”
Solar professionals that I interviewed for this piece consistently echoed NREL’s balanced perspective. None of them enjoy a protracted permitting process, but safer and more reliable electricity is exactly what solar installers aim to provide. It would be counterproductive to sacrifice the baseline levels of safety and reliability that we collectively already enjoy, just in the name of a job.
There have, of course, been some speed bumps along the way. A Missouri general contractor and LED lighting specialist installed a trailblazing solar + storage grid-tie system back in 2012, and the timing proved frustrating. “The power company gave me hoops to jump through, sure,” he explains. “But the headache was a municipality looking for code requirements that didn’t exist yet.” The intensive approval process was enough to keep this GC out of solar indefinitely.
In another example, a first-time solar installer is at this very moment muddling through protracted interconnection discussions due to a miscommunication with the utility. NREL notes, “Consistent forms and requirements among the utilities within a state can improve interconnection processes in several ways, for example, by reducing the number of questions a utility receives or increasing the amount of applications submitted correctly without missing information.”
In response to such hiccups, NREL has synthesized a list of best practices for utilities across the spectrum of DG market maturity. The central difference between NREL’s advice for low- and high-penetration DG markets is simple: reactivity versus proactivity. Mature markets do not have the luxury of blindly responding to applications as they come in. Instead, web-based interconnection platforms, sophisticated technical screens and modeling, and even DG deployment forecasts become essential.
After all, “investments in streamlining and improving the interconnection process can yield higher returns” - returns that will further incentivize investment in DG solar. While the road has not been easy, each instance of cooperation takes us a step further into a brighter, more renewable future.