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The Smart Way to Approach Interconnections

The Smart Way to Approach Interconnections, Doug Houseman

As utilities and communities look ahead to their energy futures, they have a choice.

They can acknowledge that renewable sources will deliver most of the energy to the grid and develop interconnection policies accordingly. Or they can stick with the status quo and existing policies that favor early adapters and disadvantage everyone else.

To see what I mean, let’s start with a simple example: transformers. Today, transformers are typically shared among customers. The question is, should the first customer who installs a solar panel be allowed to use more than their “share” of the transformer, forcing customers who add solar later to pay for upgrades? In situations like this, policy matters.

This is just one example of an issue that should be considered when developing interconnection policy. Here are others:

Solar storage and time-of-use pricing — As the grid approaches 100 percent renewables, power costs during solar maximum turn negative. When the sun sets, they rise dramatically. Communities and utilities might contemplate policies that encourage customers to install storage capabilities to help balance the load. They might also consider time-of-use pricing similar to that being adopted in California, where power is cheapest during solar hours and most expensive during high-use evening hours.

Multi-family housing — Should the owners of multiple dwelling units receive the benefits of installed renewables, or should they accrue to renters or condo owners?

Community solar — The electricity generated by some community renewable energy projects are shared by multiple households. But what happens when an owner leaves the community? Policies may need to address how shares in community solar are shared and changes verified. If a project is designed to help low-income residents, policies might also address if and how changes in financial status affect share ownership.

Response to shortages — Utilities with a high percentage of renewables, little or no fossil-fuel backup and insufficient storage may not be equipped to handle a multiple-day cold spell. For those instances, policies should be in place to address how demand response and prioritization change. Utilities with backup available should similarly make plans for addressing cold snaps, such as the polar vortices in 2014 and 2017, when wind and solar could not keep up with demand. Utilities in New England fell back on oil-fired power for nearly half of its generation. Renewable supply models should be modeled on winter, rather than summer peaks.

Electrification — The movement toward electric vehicles (EVs) raises many questions for cities and utilities. Here are two to get started. Should EV automakers be encouraged to produce larger batteries that are charged less frequently? Should utilities push to allow batteries to be discharged to the grid in times of need?

Building codes — If a city chooses, local building codes can be written to require renewable installation and greater thermal insulation on major renovation and new construction projects. Large-scale renewable projects, meanwhile, will be built in areas with low land costs and population density. Policies are needed to establish planning standards for protection, communications and controls on these projects.

A comprehensive policy for interconnections will consider these issues and more. The time to create one is now — before you need it.

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Doug Houseman
Written by Doug Houseman
Doug Houseman is grid modernization lead and visionary for Burns & McDonnell.

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