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Solar Industry Discusses Major Challenge in Massachusetts: Interconnection
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Solar Industry Discusses Major Challenge in Massachusetts: Interconnection image

SEBANE brings industry, utility, and state reps together to identify issues in the interconnection process that stall solar projects

On Tuesday, May 14, members of the solar industry, representatives from two major utilities, and State Representative Thomas Golden, the Chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, gathered at Foley Hoag LLP to re-open the conversation about the Commonwealth’s distributed generation interconnection process. Over the last few years, the solar industry has identified interconnection to the electric grid as a major bottleneck to increasing the amount of installed solar capacity in Massachusetts.

Utilities face dramatic increase in solar capacity

The number of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems being installed throughout Massachusetts has increased dramatically over the last decade and there is more to come. In general, this increase is a good sign for the Commonwealth; we have been able to reach solar deployment targets of installed capacity with relative ease and speed. However, the pace at which these systems are demanding to be interconnected presents several new problems to our utilities.

The growth in popularity of solar PV has overwhelmed utilities with applications to interconnect to their electric grid. Over-saturation of certain areas of the grid have created a backlog of solar projects in both National Grid and Eversource service territories.

The utilities have been challenged to simultaneously interconnect multiple distributed generation systems to the grid, while managing the growth of load in some areas of the grid; tasked with integrating and dispatching energy storage systems; and required to design new metering mechanisms to comply with state policy programs. As they tackle these issues, the utilities are obligated to ensure that their processes and procedures remain consistent and fair to all developers and customers. Moreover, a top priority for utilities is to always ensure that their infrastructure, including feeders and substations, are safe for their workers.

The line for solar is out the door and around the corner

Since the wave of solar installations and interconnection applications began, members of the solar industry have found themselves with several new problems as well. Solar projects have been stuck (in some cases for years) in the utilities’ application queue, where they are waiting to receive interconnection service agreements or a rejection notice. Queue management was one of the main challenges identified by the solar industry during SEBANE’s Interconnection Forum. The longer a project sits in the interconnection queue, the more money that is lost on the investment, putting the health of these solar companies at serious risk.

Solar developers and investors would benefit from receiving more data from utilities before they even apply for interconnection. Currently, a pre-application report is mandatory for all systems above 500 kW in size, but there is not enough information provided on the report for developers to make sound decisions. Before deciding to complete the full application, developers would like to know if the location of the proposed solar PV system is in an area that the utility has deemed to be “saturated” with distributed generation. Both utility representatives and industry members agreed that there should be better incentives that steer developers towards the areas that have less solar PV installed. National Grid has taken steps to address this complaint, such as publishing a list of substations that are affected by ongoing distribution and transmission studies, but industry members claim it would be more helpful to receive this type of information in the pre-application report. Members suggested publishing maps that show exactly what areas of the grid are oversaturated, so they can either avoid pursuing those projects all together or decide if the infrastructure upgrades are worth their price tag

The saturation levels of solar PV have also caused utilities to put projects on hold as ISO New England steps in to conduct transmission studies. Members of the solar industry are frustrated by the lack of transparency around the timelines, structure and methodology of these studies. Stronger representation from ISO New England at stakeholder meetings and in working groups could help the solar industry better understand the reasons for the study and insight into their processes. Solar PV is just one technology that the ISO needs to focus on. The transmission system is like a highway in Massachusetts, riddled with potholes, short on-ramps, and terrible traffic (to paraphrase Eric Graber-Lopez of Bluewave Solar). It is important to remember that ISO New England is dealing with its own challenges of introducing many other technologies, such as a massive amount of offshore wind capacity, to the electric grid in the next couple of years.

Timelines, Transparency, Togetherness

Common themes of the afternoon included improving timelines, increasing transparency, and, perhaps most essentially, working together to accomplish our goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the Commonwealth. When it comes to the utility and solar industry, we find that this type of discussion often follows a ‘they versus us’ narrative. Rather than point fingers and cross arms, it is imperative that we continue to work on these problems together. Upgrading the grid is an investment in the future of the Commonwealth. The cost of not upgrading the grid will be far greater in the end.

Some big ideas shared during the Forum included:

1. The extreme automation of the interconnection application process. National Grid has taken some steps to improve this by launching an application portal, but Eversource has yet to follow suit.

2. A change in how applications are ordered in the queue. Currently, the applications are accepted on first come, first served basis. What if the queue was based on desirable attributes, such as location, to help reduce saturation? (Learn more about New Jersey’s latest Community Shared Solar pilot program as an example.) What if there was an incentive for developers to remove themselves from the queue as soon as they realize the project is dead for other, nontechnical reasons?

3. More communication between the utility’s DG staff and solar project managers. It can be difficult to get in touch with the individuals at the utility that manage each application. Industry members ask for stronger explanations of time enforcement mechanisms, consistency in the language used by all utilities, and a more predictable process overall.

Rep. Golden pushes for legislation, progress

During the final session of the Interconnection Forum, the group shared the floor with Representative Thomas Golden, Chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. Golden emphasized his need to hear directly from the members of the solar industry, the people who deal with these types of issues day to day. He humbly reminded us of how complex issues related to interconnection and grid modernization are, especially to those that are not steeped in the industry. Golden’s main call to action for the attendees was to call our representatives, or invite them to grab coffee, to explain what’s going on in the world of solar. The energy industry is constantly evolving and keeping representatives up to date will be a crucial part of this improvement process. Unlike some other pieces of legislation, where you can pass a bill and move on, legislation involving energy resources and the electric grid will need to be revisited every few years.

In January 2019, Golden, along with eight other state representatives, filed “An Act relative to modern grid access and customer service.” The Act calls for the “implementation and periodic update of grid modernization efforts and formal interconnection standards to ensure fair, reasonable, and transparent customer grid access is essential to the achievement of the Commonwealth’s goals” (Bill H.3667, 2). The Act would direct the Department of Public Utilities to “initiate an ongoing, open proceeding” to explore how we can improve “interconnection, metering, customer service and other rules” (3).

State representatives play a critical role in moving the Commonwealth closer to a clean energy future, but they cannot do it alone. Visit Find My Legislator or call (617) 722-2460 to contact your representative.

Update: One week after SEBANE’s Interconnection Forum, the MA Department of Public Utilities opened an inquiry into the Commonwealth’s current interconnection standards and practices. The DPU plans to engage with stakeholders to address some of the issues included in this article and “update the model DG Interconnection Tariff if necessary” (DPU 19-55, 4). A technical conference will be held on July 18, 2019 at 10:00 AM.


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