DER interconnection: 5 takeaways from the IREC Vision Summit 2023

DER interconnection: 5 takeaways from the IREC Vision Summit 2023
(Dozens of renewable energy industry thought leaders gathered in Minneapolis for the IREC Vision Summit 2023.)

(Minneapolis, MN) – In the words of Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forwards.”

It’s easy enough to identify shortcomings in an electrical grid one hundred years in the making; it’s not as simple to find solutions. That’s why it’s sometimes best to work in groups!

Some of the brightest minds in the industry gathered in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the Interstate Renewable Energy Council Vision 2023 Summit. Over the course of several moderated sessions and fireside chats, IREC’s assemblage presented ideas and practices that will shape the future of DER interconnection. Here are some key takeaways:

1. We need more engineers

If there’s an aimless student near and dear to your heart, perhaps it’s a good idea to push them toward the engineering field. Stakeholders across sectors lamented the lack of young, qualified engineers to put on projects. There isn’t staff to regularly update hosting maps, interconnection queues can’t be evaluated even remotely quickly, and not enough people understand systems once they are online.

“Utilities are not classically staffed and equipped for this,” explained Rory Christian, chair and CEO of the New York State Public Service Commission.

“We process more than 10,000 applications every year,” added Pearl Donohoo-Vallett, Ph.D., a senior strategy manager for utility Pepco Holdings, who suggested the need for an interconnection workforce. “That’s a lot for a small engineering staff.

“These are fundamental changes in the utility business. The business transformation that is needed is enormous. If we want it to be good and fast, utilities need to build the tools and teams to collectively get things on the system a lot faster. “

“I see the challenge mainly in human capital,” concurred Mahmoud Kabalan, the founding director of the Center for Microgrid Research at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. “We don’t have enough engineers comfortable to run microgrids. It’s very much an ongoing learning experience.”

IREC’s team of panelists gives the Vision Summit’s keynote speech.

2. Transparency is essential to smooth interconnection

Stephen Mariani, who works for the Public Utilities Commission of Hawai’i, was one of many speakers frustrated by challenges collecting data.

“Utilities need to be incentivized to provide transparency and information,” agreed Utopia Hill, CEO at Reactivate.

Julieta Giraldez, director of grid planning at Kevala, called lack of transparency the biggest challenge facing distribution interconnection. “Good data is the backbone of being able to accomplish these goals. We only cared about the peak before. It’s not the same now,” she said. “The ability to use and understand time series data, while pushing for better quality data, is essential. Otherwise, we will be stuck with more conservative screens.”

Any data that’s being used to prospect and ultimately commission a project will have to be frequently updated, too. Mark Esguerra of Southern California Edison hopes automation and AI will speed up wait times. “How do we streamline the intake of interconnection to help prevent long queues?” He wondered. “My spider senses went up when I heard capacity maps being updated.”

“Things are changing very fast. Developers want to know the status today, in 12 months, in 24 months,” Giraldez of Kevala added. “I think we have made great progress with hosting capacity maps but we have to understand it’s a dynamic concept. Every time you change the load and configuration, the results change. How do we make this information more useful?”

Katie Kienbaum, an author at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is trying to get access to information that will help make interconnection more equitable. “Having good, publicly available data is essential to learning where these inequities exist and to hold utilities and regulators responsible,” she said.

SAVE THE DATE! The next edition of the GridTECH Connect Forum will be held in Orlando, Florida on February 26, 2024. We’re bringing together developers, utilities, and regulators to take on the critical issue of DER interconnection in the Southeast. Register to secure your seat today.

3. The rules need changing

Minnesota estimates it will take around 200 years to process the interconnection applications in its queue. As Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard almost certainly did not say: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”

“Interconnection rules didn’t keep pace with policymakers’ interests,” explained David Gahl, executive director of the Solar and Storage Industries Institute, the think tank arm of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) trade group. “Those rules need to catch up and we need to improve our processes. We need to move faster to catch up with regulators and policymakers’ intent.”

“If I could wave a magic wand and say we are gonna update the 100-year-old regulatory contract and make DERs a core service of utilities, great! That’s not gonna happen overnight,” laughed Brad Klein, senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “I hope we get there. There’s work around the edges.”

“The fundamental policy framework is based on stuff done in 2006. It was developed for a different time and a different world,” he continued. “That framework treats connecting DERs as a novelty, extraneous to the utility. They should pay for it, it’s only going to benefit them, and the utility will treat it as a one-off. But today, that’s completely at odds with our goals. We recognize a decentralized energy future.”

“We must continue to improve the screens and the process but it won’t matter until we change the core assumptions around our framework.”

Renewable energy attorney Sky Stanfield likened our current grid policy to the bones of a single-family home. “We are trying to put a skyscraper over it. Instead of a foundation, it’s an extra support beam here, a little plaster there…  It’s time for us to take a look at if the basic foundation will be able to support what we need to do. I think it is not.”

Dustin Jolley discusses the importance of microgrids during an IREC Vision Summit 2023’s panel. Also pictured, from left to right: Weston Dengler, Ben Passer, Mahmoud Kabalan, Carlos Alberto Velazquez Lopez, Brian Lydic.

4. The new grid will be a more standardized and equitable one

Inconsistency seems to be among the only consistencies when it comes to interconnection state-to-state. Shoring up access to information, modernizing methods, and standardizing as many processes as possible will be essential as we address inequities in access to renewables.

“The application process is a black hole,” said Adrian Davis, co-founder of Prime Partners Engineering. “The interconnection process is really confusing.”

“It’s very challenging for developers to locate assets to support the grid if we don’t have clarity,” detailed Hill. “It’s literally a black box. There’s no consistency. Every interconnection application process varies. Some places still have Excel. Others use e-mails. Some still want wet signatures.”

“We need standardizations and certification at a higher level so they can just plug and play,” added Southern California Edison’s Esguerra, who believes some of the challenge is that technology is moving quicker than we can certify its effectiveness.

“It’s tough to gauge the difference between disinterest and distrust.”

-Shay Banton, regulatory program engineer and energy justice policy advocate at IREC

Bringing lower-to-middle-income areas on board will be a tough task in some places, warned a panel on interconnection equity. Shay Banton, a regulatory program engineer and energy justice policy advocate for IREC, fears establishing trust will be difficult in overlooked communities.

Davis wants to ensure LMI communities have access to technical support, as they’re often submitting one-time applications, unlike large developers navigating interconnection frequently.

“When we are going out to interconnect in these communities, it’s the oldest infrastructure. People aren’t predicting disadvantaged communities to have resources- the money is being spent elsewhere,” said Hill. “It creates a red line in the grid, and we can’t have that.”

5. Microgrids might not be a silver bullet, but they’ll do in a pinch

When Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated Puerto Rico’s electrical systems, microgrids saved lives in the aftermath. Nonprofits assisted communities in uniting behind solar and storage to provide a lifeline for critical services. Now we’re figuring out how similar setups can keep vital community centers online in emergencies stateside.

“A lot of folks in Puerto Rico have changed their relationship with the energy system,” detailed IREC program director Carlos Alberto Velazquez Lopez, who leads the organization’s efforts on the island. “You used to receive a bill at the end of the month and wait for it to happen again. After Maria people started to ask where it comes from. How can I generate locally? How can I make sure the lights stay on?”

“You will find such a high-energy IQ there now,” he continued. “People can tell you about batteries, how to reduce consumption. It’s fascinating, from children to older adults. What happened in Puerto Rico is terrible but what’s happening now is a very positive sign.”

PODCAST: Scale Microgrid Solutions co-founder and COO Tim Hade joined Episode 34 of the Factor This! podcast to discuss scaling a cleantech hardware company, microgrids, and the role of distributed energy resources in the energy transition. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Velazquez Lopez sees an opportunity for LMI communities to take ownership of energy and storage and teach energy literacy through outreach, instead of waiting for disaster.

In the short term, there appears to be an excellent use case for microgrids in places like critical care facilities, argued Weston Dengler of Smart Electric Power Alliance. “They are a tool in the tool kit. They are increasingly being proven. They will be a piece; the definition of the idea that the grid is no longer top down, it’s middle out.”

“Microgrids are an example of what the grid of the future will look like, this grid of grids,” agreed OurEnergy CEO Dustin Jolley. “These are simply the early stage projects of a complete overhaul of our grid and the infrastructure it operates under.”

“The missing piece is energy storage,” warned Kabalan, who is set to power five campus buildings with a microgrid of his own. “We don’t do that efficiently or economically yet. But if we figure that out in ten to twenty years, microgrids might be in everybody’s homes.”