Bill for consumer solar rights in California rolls on (meanwhile, Sacramento utility proposes ‘grid access fee’)

 

California on map

California consumers and clean energy supporters applauded the passage of SB 288 through its first critical hurdle in the Senate Energy Committee last week. Authored by the bipartisan team of Sen. Scott Wiener (D-SF) and Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Red Bluff), along with several other legislative co-authors, SB 288 would ensure that California consumers are able to invest in their own clean energy, such as rooftop solar and storage, without facing punitive fees or interference from their local electric utility. The bill would also remove barriers to local solar investments created by utilities in the form of interconnection delays and burdensome red tape.

A diverse set of electricity consumers and clean energy groups attended today’s hearing in support of the bill, which now moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The bipartisan Solar Bill of Rights will give utility customers the right to:

  • Make, store, and use clean energy on their own property without interference from the utility
  • Connect solar and storage to the grid quickly without unnecessary red tape
  • Be free from discriminatory fees and charges associated with installing and using clean onsite energy

Why this is needed

Advocates contend that the need for SB 288 is on full display right now in Sacramento, where the local utility has recently proposed a new charge that discriminates against rooftop solar. In recent weeks, staff at Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) have proposed a solar-only “grid access charge” that would charge the average solar home an additional $32-44/month on top of the utility’s existing monthly $20 fixed charge. The fee would penalize solar users simply for reducing their electricity purchases from the utility and discourage consumers from making their own energy choices, making it precisely the type of discriminatory fee that the Solar Bill of Rights would prohibit.

“I am a SMUD customer and brand new solar user. I chose solar to keep my electricity costs down and help us move to a sustainable future by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. But now SMUD wants to force me to pay hundreds of dollars more every year just because I have solar. It’s unfair and is why consumers need SB 288 — to protect the public from anti-consumer, anti-solar, monopolistic behavior by utilities,” said solar customer Gabor Leidenfrost of Galt.

“We need SB 288 to protect ordinary consumers from unfair, discriminatory fees and red tape that discourage us from doing the right thing for our families, communities and the environment,” said veteran, Madera solar homeowner and Solar Rights Alliance member Ramon Torres. “It is wrong that the electric utilities are allowed to punish people for choosing solar with these kinds of practices and we need lawmakers to stand up for our rights.”

“SMUD just proposed an outrageous new solar fixed charge, which shows how urgent it is for lawmakers to protect their constituents’ right to clean, safe, and affordable energy,” said Susannah Churchill, California Director for Vote Solar. “We applaud lawmakers for moving this critical legislation forward so that California communities continue to benefit from our growing clean energy economy.”

More than 80 organizations representing farmers, housing developers, business owners, schools, local governments, environmental and consumer groups and homeowners have signed on in support of the Solar Bill of Rights. The full text is available here.

— Solar Builder magazine

Reasonable and revolutionary: We look at the Solar Bill of Rights proposed in California

solar bill of rights

“Collaborate with the Independent System Operator” is a great phrase, one that should be heard more often in regards to a utility’s interaction with customers generating and/or storing their own renewable energy. It is a phrase you can find expertly woven into the Solar Bill of Rights, a bipartisan proposal that now sits in front of the California Senate which would expand the freedom to self-generate to all Californians.

This bill, or at least the conversation, is much needed. Starting in 2020, all new homes built in California must have solar generation incorporated in some fashion. Solar will be as integral to the homes in California as windows and roofs. We are considering the implications of this mandate all year in this Countdown to 2020 series. One implication is the balance of power shifting away from electric utilities to the public. This won’t be the case on Jan. 1, 2020, but the mandate makes it inevitable, so the time is now to rethink the basic expectations, and rights, within that utility-customer dynamic.

Solar mandate aside, Californians have plenty of reasons to push for such action (cough, PG&E, cough). As the Solar Rights Alliance website puts it: “In these uncertain times, everyone should be free to make their own energy from the sun. Wildfires. Blackouts. Bankruptcies. Budget-busting electricity prices. It’s no wonder more and more Californians are looking to solar energy. Homeowners, farmers, renters, schools and businesses alike want more peace of mind and control than what the utilities can offer.”

What’s it say?

The Solar Bill of Rights (Senate Bill 288), officially announced by a coalition of solar users and California State Senators Scott Wiener (D-SF) and Jim Nielsen (R-Tehuma), is written to guarantee the following for everyone living in California:

• The right to generate and store solar energy on your property without interference from the utility.
• The right to interconnect solar and storage to the grid quickly, without utility red tape.
• Freedom from unfair fees that discriminate against customers just for having solar.

The Solar Bill of Rights will also make it possible for solar and storage customers to provide grid services with their battery, helping make a more reliable electric grid while receiving a fair credit in return. Solar groups supporting the bill include the new Solar Rights Alliance, the California Solar & Storage Association and Vote Solar.

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A few excerpts

I especially liked these bits from the bill, all of which read as both perfectly reasonable and revolutionary:

“The bill would require the PUC to collaborate with the Independent System Operator to modify existing tariffs to remove barriers to the participation of customer-sited energy resources in programs intended to provide energy, capacity, and ancillary services for the bulk power system.”

“Residential customers have a right to consumer protections that ensure adequate transparency in sales and contracts for renewable energy and storage installations and services,”

“The time require for utility review and approval of interconnection applications and the lack of transparency in interconnection costs has impeded customer adoption of solar and energy storage systems.”

And this whole section outlining the information the utility should have to include in their annual reports for the PUC to review on an annual basis (metrics that are currently undervalued and we discussed at length in our Shadow Costs feature last year):

1. The amount of time that the electrical corporations or local publicly owned electric utilities have taken to complete each step in the review of interconnection requests.

2. The number of interconnection requests initially received and the number of interconnection requests deemed complete.

3. The amount of fees charged for processing the interconnection requests and the basis for those fees.

4. A summary of challenges in reducing the amount of time for interconnection review and improvements to the interconnection review process that occurred in the previous year.

 


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— Solar Builder magazine

After some drama, California’s major utilities have published updated Interconnection Capacity Analysis maps

California on map

California has just taken a major step forward in bringing clean local energy online. The Clean Coalition played a major role in this progress as a leading advocate for streamlining the interconnection of distributed energy resources (DER) to the electric grid. On Dec. 28, 2018, California’s major utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), published their updated Interconnection Capacity Analysis (ICA) maps, or ICA 2.0. These online grid maps are a product of the Distribution Resources Plan (DRP) proceeding at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), in which the Clean Coalition has been the leading non-utility intervenor.

“The updated ICA maps make a great leap forward from what has been available to date,” said Sahm White, Economics and Policy Analysis Director at the Clean Coalition. “The new maps take a huge amount of risk and uncertainty out of DER project development, which will result in more of these projects being built at lower cost. A developer can now determine, early in the decision-making process, what size of project can be sited at any location with little or no modification to the existing grid. This is critical for easily choosing the best locations for siting projects, and then for projects that are moved forward, being informed with realistic costs and timing expectations regarding interconnection.”

The drama

The expected July publication of the ICA 2.0 maps was delayed because of unwarranted issues raised about exposing easily discernable grid details, such as the location of substations. This concern led the utilities to take the drastic step in September of restricting access to their existing maps, which had already been publicly available since 2012. Fortunately, that action was reversed when Administrative Law Judge Robert Mason ruled on October 9 that the previously published maps should be made publicly available again. In a subsequent ruling on December 17, 2018, Mason directed the utilities to make the ICA 2.0 maps available by December 28, 2018 through a public portal, like the predecessor maps had been accessible for over half a decade.

Importance of the ICA maps

Santa-Cruz-ICA-map

Example of new ICA maps, showing color-coded existing capacity and detailed information for the specific identified point, as well as circuit load profiles, at the Paul Sweet substation

ICA-circuit-load-profiles

ICA maps assess all points on the existing distribution grid for accommodating new DER capacity without significant grid upgrades. The maps, which contain details on available interconnection capacity, are crucial tools for bringing DER online more quickly and cost-effectively.

Interconnection is often the most complex, uncertain, and time-consuming aspect of DER project development. This is particularly true for smaller projects, which can easily be rendered uneconomic due to a lack of predictability in terms of interconnection costs and timelines. For this reason, since 2010 the Clean Coalition has successfully pushed for utilities to provide increasing-ly detailed and accurate interconnection data in the grid maps, which help project developers and property owners determine whether sites are appropriate for serious DER siting consideration.

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The ICA 2.0 update represents the first full-scale release of ICA maps with reliable data. Although the utilities published demonstration ICA maps in 2015 with detailed data, those maps relied on models and assumptions that did not meet the accuracy standards required by interconnection engineers. In contrast, the ICA 2.0 maps can be used with a high degree of accuracy for interconnection assessments. The new maps evaluate the most common interconnection capacity factors at the node level on every line section of all primary distribution circuits — that is, at every point on the circuits where there can be a change in values that would affect the ICA results. Significantly, for the sake of facilitating certainty and accuracy for project developers and property owners, the maps are publicly available and will be updated every month.

Craig Lewis, Executive Director of the Clean Coalition, added, “ICA 2.0 provides an unprecedented level of transparency and certainty through publicly available grid data. There is still a long way to go to truly streamline interconnection processes for commercial-scale DER in California, but ICA 2.0 provides the first real foundation for distribution grid planning in the United States. With continuing efforts, California will keep improving, and other states, and even FERC, will at least match California’s progress in streamlining interconnection for local renewables and other commercial-scale DER.”

The Clean Coalition has been a major contributor in the effort to publish and improve the ICA maps, providing the vision for modernized, streamlined interconnection processes and leading the effort to realize that vision.
While ICA 2.0 is a welcome major development, there are more improvements to come. Next steps have already been defined for ICA 3.0 and include these additional ICA refinements:

  • Current ICA maps pertain to just the distribution grid. ICA 3.0 will add constraints related to the transmission grid that could affect interconnection — for example, other projects being proposed for that part of the transmission grid.
  • ICA 2.0 maps model each circuit, but they do not show how a circuit may affect neighboring circuits. ICA 3.0 will dynamically model multiple circuits and their impact on one another.
  • ICA 3.0 will aim to update the maps in real-time, to ensure that the results are never out of date.

— Solar Builder magazine

SepiSolar says California’s NEM policy revision paves the way for larger solar systems, quicker interconnection

NX Flow-SepiSolar White Paper

Contractors will need to design solar systems with DC-coupled storage and procure DC-coupled energy storage products that incorporate a new UL-verified inverter firmware solution

A new SepiSolar white paper reveals the financial benefits of a pending revision to California’s net energy metering (NEM) policy. When finalized, commercial DC-coupled solar-plus-storage installations will not only be able to benefit from NEM, but will also be able to increase solar system size, reduce installation and permitting costs, and quicken interconnection approval time.

“This policy does more than just reduce equipment costs,” said Josh Weiner, CEO of SepiSolar and author of the white paper. “Businesses can now store their excess solar power in a battery system and receive demand charge benefits as well as the financial benefits from NEM.”

Background

On Oct. 5, 2018, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued a proposed decision to modify CPUC Decision 14-05-033, the NEM tariff policy for solar and energy storage. Once approved, the change will allow DC-coupled energy storage systems to become eligible for NEM without the need for thousands of dollars in extra hardware costs and burdensome verification required by California utilities and the IRS for AC-coupled energy storage systems.

To take advantage of this policy change, contractors will need to design solar systems with DC-coupled storage and procure DC-coupled energy storage products that incorporate a new UL-verified inverter firmware solution. NEXTracker’s NX Flow energy storage system piloted this firmware solution with UL, and is therefore expected to be the first DC-coupled energy storage product approved for the new regulation.

SepiSolar findings

Before the CPUC's Proposed Decision

SepiSolar’s white paper reviews and compares the historical challenges of designing AC-coupled and DC-coupled energy storage systems for NEM. It also describes how the new NEM DC-coupled policy and system design will eliminate the need to purchase the extra equipment required for non-export AC-coupled systems, such as reverse-power relays, an additional utility meter, switchgear and a second inverter.

After the CPUC's Proposed Decision

“Another benefit is that solar systems can now be ‘supersized’ to exceed the 1 MW behind-the-meter interconnection soft limit,” Weiner says. “With a DC-coupled design using products that have the UL-verified firmware, excess generation over 1 MW can now be stored in the battery and later exported into the grid at favorable or optimized NEM or NEM-aggregate tariff.”

As a simple example, Weiner says a 1 MW stand-alone solar system can be increased to 5 MW with a complementary DC-coupled 4 MW storage system and a 1 MW AC inverter that uses the new firmware.

Goodbye, infrastructure costs

The same DC-coupled system design may also eliminate the need for utility infrastructure upgrade costs. These costs are most often charged to the solar asset owner when the solar system’s export generation is over 1 MW. Typically, the owner either pays for the upgrades or decreases the system size. With the new DC-coupled configuration, solar-plus-storage systems can be designed to meet the location’s grid capacity, reducing the need for upgrades. Any excess solar can be stored and later exported at up to 1 MW intervals. In models developed by SepiSolar, adding DC-coupled energy storage under the pending NEM policy is usually much less expensive than the cost of grid infrastructure costs without storage.

The simpler DC-coupled design also will allow solar+storage systems to qualify for expedited interconnection, reducing difficult verification requirements for utility interconnection, expediting interconnection.

Finally, with the UL-verified firmware, tax equity investors and utilities receive independent verification that the storage system is only exporting solar generation and not charging batteries from the grid. This verification is important for qualifying energy storage systems to receive the 30% investment tax credit.

The proposed CPUC ruling for NEM for DC-coupled solar-plus-storage systems is expected to gain final approval by the end of 2018 or early in 2019.

— Solar Builder magazine

California Building Standards Commission makes it official: New homes will have solar starting in 2020

California Building Standards vote

Making it official, the California Building Standards Commission (CBSC) unanimously confirmed the new standards that require solar on new homes in California starting in 2020. This final regulatory vote confirms that the California Energy Commission (CEC) followed the correct process in developing the new rules established in May, making California the first state in the country with the clean energy requirement. The new rules include a solar plus storage option to give consumers more clean energy choices.

“It’s officially official. Solar will be required on new California homes starting in 2020,” said Kelly Knutsen, Director of Technology Advancement for the California Solar & Storage Association (CALSSA). “These highly energy efficient and solar-powered homes will save families money on their energy bills from the moment they walk through their front door. Homebuyers will also have a solar plus storage option, allowing their home-grown clean energy to work for them day and night.”

The CBSC voted to confirm that the CEC followed the correct process to increase the clean energy requirements in the California Building Energy Standards.

Details on the new standards

Updated every three years through a rigorous stakeholder process, the standards require California homes and businesses to meet strong energy efficiency measures, lowering their energy use.

For the first time, they will require solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to be installed on new low-rise residential buildings starting January 1, 2020. Low-rise residential buildings include single family homes and multi-family buildings of three stories or less; therefore apartments and condos are included in the new standards.

Additionally, the vote sets a path forward for solar plus storage in new homes by providing a storage option if the homeowner chooses. The standards also continue solar water heating provisions for larger buildings, allowing solar energy continue to help reduce the water heating needs of our buildings.

CEC analysis

For the past three years, the CEC performed detailed analysis on the new requirements, and gathered official public input from all stakeholders — utilities, home builders, solar industry, lighting industry. Their analysis showed the new solar requirement will be cost-effective in all climate zones in the state – from the mountains to the Central Valley to the coast.

The CEC stated that homeowners would save $40 dollars each month, or roughly $500 per year, due to these new standards. This is because even though the new energy efficiency and solar requirement would add roughly $40 per month to the mortgage payment, the savings on the homeowners’ energy bills is expected to be about $80 per month.

Currently the solar industry installs solar on roughly 150,000 new and existing homes in California each year, with roughly 15,000 of those projects being new homes. California on average builds 80,000 new homes annually. Starting in 2020, those new homes will have solar; a four-fold increase compared to today.

— Solar Builder magazine