How a transparent, modern grid properly values solar, DER

grid modernization with solar

Much of our Attack the Tariff campaign is focused on market-based innovations that improve the upfront costs and long-term value for a variety of solar projects. But state-based solutions and local movements often make the biggest impact. In a series of white papers this year, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) made a solid case for how regulators and utilities could lay the ground work for a more modern-day grid that takes better advantage of distributed energy resources.

“When states develop fair compensation mechanisms for distributed energy resources (DER), the result is a modern electric grid that better serves the needs of all its customers,” said Sean Gallagher, SEIA’s vice president of state affairs. “The case studies highlighted in our report can serve as a model for other states interested in grid modernization and the economic benefits that result.”

We recommend reading the whole thing. Our big takeaway is just how imperative it is for utilities to be more transparent with their data, forecasts and calculations. We need to get more voices in the room to offer solutions. What locations in an area need which specific upgrades? For what time of year? For what time of day?


We all already know utility transparency is an issue, but when the possibilities for grid modernization are laid out as SEIA has done in this series, the lack of transparency seems more inexcusable than ever.

Our favorite concept from the report came in part four, Getting More Granular: How Value of Location and Time May Change Compensation for Distributed Energy Resources.

Locational value can be used to guide resources to high value locations. Utilities can create, and should publish maps showing the specific locations of any needs on the distribution system, the specific grid constraints to avoid the need (e.g., high loads during hot late summer afternoons), and the value of the avoidance in terms of dollars per amount of capacity. If a developer knows in advance that there will be a utility solicitation for the identified needs, it can begin seeking customers or project sites in anticipation of the opportunity to bid in its projects.


The report continues in that section to lay out a basis for compensation:

In addition to competitive utility solicitations, there are alternative means of providing targeted tariffs, programs or incentives to drive DER to locations to meet identified needs. If identified needs are too small or have too short of a lead time to be met through a competitive solicitation, the utility could have a tariff- or program-based mechanism that can step in on short notice.

For example, voltage issues are often very isolated and managed with small utility investments. However, smart inverters are increasingly being deployed widely and can be used to provide voltage management services in the locations where a utility has challenges managing voltage within an acceptable range.

In addition, tariffs enable customers of all stripes to adopt solar and other DER, which delivers the generalized grid benefits we discuss, but also ensures that a state’s clean energy market grows equitably in a manner that distributes the social, environmental, and economic benefits to all ratepayers. This is an emerging topic and it is expected that California’s Integrated Distributed Energy Resources proceeding will explore non-solicitation based sourcing mechanisms.

So, there needs to be more transparency for developers and engineers to jump in and propose solutions, but there also needs to be more general transparency for the public to better understand how electricity gets to their house, what exactly it costs, and what alternatives could look like. Each small decision is super complicated, but zooming back out and considering the broad strokes from the point of view of an actual home owner would be revealing.

Changing incentives

In part five, which considers DER and non-wires solutions, SEIA makes the case that enhanced distribution system planning should incorporate the following key features:

• DER growth scenarios to inform grid planners where organic DER growth can be expected and where incremental DER deployment is needed.
• Hosting capacity analyses to determine DER hosting capacity limits on the distribution system to inform grid planners where additional investments may be needed to enable higher penetrations of DER.
• A methodology for fully valuing distributed energy resources to ensure proper price signals
• A transparent evaluation process by which NWS can be measured against traditional utility investments to determine the best investment for ratepayers.

Distribution utilities often make money on the construction of substations and other major capital projects. By avoiding those expenditures with solar or other DER, utilities would lose revenue opportunities, which is obviously a disincentive. This is why in California and New York, both states leading the way into a new era of transparency and collaboration, regulators have created compensation mechanisms to remove this potential bias.

This approach has allowed Southern California Edison to acquire about 260 MW of location-specific DER, 50 MW of which is distributed solar. In New York, the Public Service Commission agreed to defer the construction of a $1.5 billion substation, instead having Con Ed meet the forecasted load with 17 MW of customer-sided solutions and 52 MW of non-traditional utility-sided solutions by mid-2018. The overall budget here was only $200 million, of which only about $69 million was spent. The remaining money will be used to defer additional investments.

Bottom line, this series illustrates that if you started the grid from scratch in 2018, knowing what we know, and with the technology we have, there is just no way you’d arrive at the current arrangement and business model. Having utilities prioritize DER with the same long-term, capital intensive strategizing that they current apply, could be the most impactful U.S. innovation this century.

— Solar Builder magazine

GTM: Future of smart homes tied to voice automation devices, grid response

Simpliphi NY Smart Home

Smart thermostats, connected lighting and electric water heaters offer customers greater awareness and control of their energy consumption. These devices are part of a broader landscape of home energy management technologies. By 2023, 28 percent of U.S. households will deploy smart thermostats; 36 percent will have at least one voice assistant device and use the device as a smart home control platform. GTM Research estimates home energy management technologies will result in $24 billion in hardware sales to market players from 2016 to 2023, in a recent report, “Energy Management in the Connected Home.”

As with the transformation of connected utility distribution equipment, connected home technologies have two-way communication capabilities which enable them to collect data on electricity consumption and be more integrated with grid operations – differentiating them from energy efficiency upgrades and one-way demand response controls that offered limited visibility and control capabilities.

The report indicates that although the home energy management landscape is comprised of a wide variety of technologies with different capabilities, connected devices are at the center of automating and orienting the home to become an asset to the energy system.

RELATED:  The Holistic Home: We peer into the future of home energy generation, usage

To-date increasing interactivity of the home has been driven by safety, comfort and convenience, not energy savings. “It’s recognized by both customers and utilities that customers only think about energy savings when their energy bill is a significant portion of their spending,” said Fei Wang, Senior Grid Edge Analyst and author of the report. “The savings potential is so small that it is hard to sustain customer engagement.”
GTM Research smart home

This is evident in the explosion of voice assistant devices sold in 2017. These devices have been sold largely as tools to enable hands-free information and audio services to enhance customer convenience, but they are also becoming the human interface or even the brain of the smart home, wrote Wang in the report. Google and Amazon are among the most well-known players in voice assistance, and GTM Research estimates that there will be 129 million of these devices deployed by 2023, making it a key technology for the home energy market. Technologies that are more exclusively focused on energy management, such as smart thermostats and smart lighting are projected to experience more conservative growth.

The smart home arena attracts players from various channels; and partnerships form across channels. Internet service providers and security companies are working to expand their relationship with American consumers by expanding into energy management offerings. Many companies are forming partnerships to build out a portfolio of services that is attractive to consumers. The report includes several case studies highlighting notable projects.

A seamless customer experience will be a competitive advantage in this market, noted Wang. “Automation and reducing prompts to react to grid events are key to keeping customers engaged and preventing customer fatigue,” said Wang. Automation will allow connected devices to participate fluidly with demand flexibility programs without active customer acknowledgement while ensuring customer comfort.

— Solar Builder magazine

MBL-Energy is now pre-certified for solar carport installs at California schools

MBL Energy carport

MBL-Energy has received the first California Division of State Architects (DSA) pre-check certification issued under the newly released 2016 CBC compliance. This certification will enable MBL-Energy to quickly move forward on the design and construction of parking canopies for California public schools and other public works by reducing the permitting approval time from up to one year down to five weeks, potentially saving schools thousands of dollars in energy costs during the process.

MBL-Energy says this certification came through because it was the first to pass cyclical testing and meeting the rigorous project and safety requirements set forth by DSA. An integral component of the new and existing DSA pre-check certification is the approval of MBL-Energy’s patented UL-certified Beacon Clip, an enhanced solar module attachment. Developed by MBL-Energy CEO Robert Laubach, the UL-certified Beacon clip uses proprietary technology that enables a more efficient and safe installation process on solar arrays. With a higher safety rating than required by the DSA, the Beacon Clip is ideal for carports on school campuses and related public work structures.

“Earning the first pre-check certification in California from the DSA based on the current and new guidelines is the culmination of months of planning, hard work and coordination between MBL engineers, third party testers and inspectors,” Laubach said. “The use of our Beacon Clip was an important safety factor in securing approval of both our earlier pre-check certification and the certification under the new DSA guidelines. The pre-check certification enables us to streamline the design and construction of carports for school districts and other public work structures and can result in significant utility bill savings.”

RELATED: Solar carport developers find low-cost opportunity despite the tariffs

The DSA oversees construction projects on California K–14 campuses by providing plan review and approval, and construction oversight of projects, in response to applications from California school and community college districts. DSA updates project pre-check qualifications based on current building code applications to meet standards agreed upon by a number of internal and external partners.

“Solar developers that receive DSA PC approval basically have structural permits, resulting in a significantly shorter project permit approval time than a non-certified project,” said Inspector of Record representative Fred Wasinger. “I have worked with MBL-Energy for 10 years on numerous projects of various sizes and scopes. Their depth of understanding of DSA is something that sets them apart from other contractors, and they consistently provide unparalleled and exacting work to our school districts.”

To date, MBL-Energy has successfully completed 350 MW of solar projects across California, of which 180 were DSA projects. This includes recently announced projects across six schools in the Santa Rita Union School District in Salinas, California, that integrates one megawatt of solar PV with 1.1 MWh of Sharp’s SmartStorage energy storage systems to form solar plus storage microgrids, and with the Fontana Unified School District (FUSD) in San Bernardino County.

— Solar Builder magazine

Submit your projects to our Project of the Year awards


Solar Builder Project of the Year awards

I started to sum up our July/August issue by saying “it’s all about innovation!” and nearly barfed. Ugh. Innovation. You know what I mean? For one, it’s a word overused to the point of being meaningless. But my gag reflex is caused more by the aura around it. Everyone wants to innovate. It is an overly sought-after objective, in my book. So much time is spent trying to innovate that we don’t invest enough time and energy perfecting what’s already working and maintaining what we all actually need. Like, endless funds and brainpower get pumped into building a car that drives itself while the plan for maintaining and improving the infrastructure underneath is left to rot.

Solar innovation is different though. It’s not just innovation for innovation’s sake. Much of the new technology and concepts have the possibility to evolve and strengthen our existing infrastructure.

The most prime example of solar’s practical innovation (SEGUE) is our Project of the Year awards. Past winners have included a large craft brewery trying to be eco-friendly, a school looking for a shading solution, a utility-scale project that provided clean power on tribal land. All of them a refreshing blend of practical problem-solving led by, well, you know what.

Submit your project this year

Any PV project, big or small — we want to hear about it. Was the installation innovative in some way? Did it help a community? Does it just look really awesome? If it stands out, it’ll qualify for our Project of the Year awards. To nominate a project (construction completion date must fall between Oct. 1, 2017 and July 31, 2018):

Step one: Click here.

Step two: Fill out the form by Aug. 31, 2018.

That’s it. From there we compile the entries and put them up for an online vote in the following categories:

  • Residential (pending enough submissions)
  • Commercial & Industrial
  • Utility-scale
  • Solar + Storage

Projects with the most votes win each category, but ALL nominees are also eligible for Editor’s Choice awards. All winners are then featured in our year-end magazine and on the site. Head here for more details and to enter.

— Solar Builder magazine

SEIA: Additional 25 percent tariff on solar cells, modules from China being considered

china solar module cell imports tariff

It seems Trump may stoke the trade war flames with China once more after the United States Trade Representative (USTR) published a new list of products covered under the Section 301 action against China for intellectual property (IP) violations. In this new list, the USTR has targeted solar cells and modules from China for an additional proposed 25 percent tariff.

Here is Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of SEIA, on what this means for the industry.

This is not a final decision. USTR broke its determination into two lists: the first made up of products with final determinations and the second subject to additional review. Solar cells and modules are part of the second list.

The USTR included cells and panels under the obscure sounding category:

  • 8541.40.60 | Diodes for semiconductor devices, other than light-emitting diodes

This category covers the more specific 10-digit items in which cells and modules are typically classified.

In the coming weeks, USTR will initiate a public notice and comment process, likely including a public hearing. We don’t know yet how long that process will take, but it is likely to last 30-60 days. After that process is complete, USTR will issue a final determination as to which of the items on its second list released today will be subject to the duties.

Normally, once a final determination is issued, it becomes effective 30 days later. That deadline could be extended up to 180 days, in the president’s discretion, if he is in negotiations with the Chinese government to resolve the underlying dispute over Chinese IP violations.

If finalized, this would increase tariffs by 25 percent for cells and panels coming from China. Given the relatively small portion of cells and panels imported to the U.S. from China now due to the antidumping, countervailing, and safeguard duties imposed on Chinese products, it is difficult to assess the effect additional duties would have on the U.S. market. Regardless, SEIA views this as a negative development as it could cause harm to the U.S. market and will continue to fight against imposition of these tariffs.

— Solar Builder magazine