Taking a new approach to solar grid connections

We have to speed things up and reduce the cost

IT’S CLEAR that our current electric grid interconnection model is unsustainable if Massachusetts is to build the amount of renewable energy that will be required for the coming years and decades.

The Commonwealth’s efforts to formalize new standards for interconnection are a laudable first step, but there is much at stake.  There are currently over 600 megawatts of projects being studied for interconnection that are facing costs that are five, 10, and in some cases 20 times higher than historical prices. That’s enough to power over 98,000 homes with clean energy every year. If projects in the current pipeline cannot even be completed, there is no chance of completing projects five to 10 years from now. We will not reach the goals established in the Clean Energy Roadmap created in the comprehensive climate legislation signed by Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this year unless we fundamentally change our approach to building more clean energy and connecting it to the grid.

Distributed solar generation is one of the most effective ways to meet our Commonwealth’s climate and clean energy goals while improving equity and access to renewable energy for historically disadvantaged communities. The delivery of these significant benefits for Bay Staters, however, requires a comprehensive overhaul of the process by which we connect solar projects to the grid.

Fortunately, the Baker administration, the Massachusetts Legislature, and the Department of Public Utilities all recognize the importance of a modern grid that can support our growing need for clean renewable energy and have begun working to address this challenge. A swift resolution will be necessary to ensure the fulfillment of our 2030 emission reduction goals and our 2050 net-zero climate plans.

Interconnection involves linking distributed renewable energy projects such as rooftop solar or community solar projects to the local grid that will transmit the energy generated by the installation to the utility and customer. It is a critical but often overlooked element of renewable energy deployment: the final step in gettingclean energy to the end user.

One of the biggest hurdles we currently face in expanding our use of renewable energy is that utilities cannot plan in a holistic way for distributed solar projects to quickly be connected with the grid. Individual applications for projects are studied and analyzed as they come in, one by one. Long delays drive up the cost of the interconnection process as the projects sit in limbo. While having an abundance of solar energy projects is a good thing, a better approach would be for utilities to define areas of capacity for growth so that developers can fill those needs.

A second challenge is that our state model requires the interconnecting customer to pay the entire cost of upgrading the grid to link with a clean energy resource such as a solar installation.

This system places an undue burden on the interconnecting customer, while the benefits of expanded renewable energy – cleaner air and improved public health as a result of reduced pollution, new clean energy jobs and economic development, and a strong and modern electric grid built to withstand the increasing strain of climate change – are shared by all. Investing in a better interconnection system now will save us all money in the long run.

The Commonwealth should be commended for efforts to resolve the current interconnection challenges blocking renewable energy projects from their full potential to benefit customers. Options to improve interconnection standards are being examined in multiple venues, including proceedings at the Department of Public Utilities and a recent hearing held by the Legislature’s Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy where I testified in support of Rep. Thomas Golden’s bill, H3313, An Act Relative to Modern Grid Access and Customer Service.  Golden’s bill would place time limits on interconnections and cap how much interconnecting customers would pay, with utility ratepayers picking up any balance.

Golden’s bill will modernize and improve our interconnection process, enabling a pathway to successful deployment of distributed solar energy. It is a fundamental but necessary shift in the way we plan for the distribution of energy and equip our grid to deliver it to ratepayers.

Meet the Author

Kaitlin Kelly O'Neill

Northeast regional director, Coalition for Community Solar Access
With the demand for distributed solar energy growing quickly here in Massachusetts and our ambitious climate goals on the line, timely action from the Commonwealth to chart a new path for modern, equitable interconnection standards is of the utmost importance.

Kaitlin Kelly O’Neill is the northeast regional director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access, a group of solar businesses and nonprofits. She is the former deputy director of the renewable division of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources.