In the heat of the policy debates between utilities and solar advocates, it's easy to forget that collaboration is key to integrating solar onto the grid.
Defying the many headlines about utilities and solar advocates often being at odds, representatives of both industries cheered each other at the Solar Power Players Awards luncheon during Solar Power International 2015 (SPI).
SEPA President/CEO Julia Hamm called the award-winners “a slate of high achievers with approaches and solutions that can be replicated by other utilities and solar stakeholders across the country."
Here are the five winners and the efforts they were recognized for.
Solar Champion: Advancing solar's role on the grid
“We are the best at what we do, which is own, operate, and manage electric grids but standing by idly is not the solution to the future,” said Carmine Tilghman, the senior director of energy supply at Tucson Electric Power (TEP) . Tilghman was awarded the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) Solar Champion for 2015.
“I was like everyone a little skeptical we would be able to transform an entire industry,” he continued. “There are tremendous issues we need to overcome. However, I believe we can.”
Tilghman was recognized for a career-long effort in solar but especially for two specific efforts he is leading at TEP.
One is the Arizona Science & Technology Park Solar Zone, which tests utility-scale solar generation technologies and is, according to Bruce Wright, vice president of Tech Parks Arizona Associate, the biggest solar test site of its kind in the world.
Hosting seven different technologies on 166 acres, the zone allows TEP’s engineers and system operators to understand the dynamics and challenges of emerging and still unproven solar technologies. “Once you understand, it is far easier to create a solution,” Tilghman said.
Tilghman was also recognized for his leadership of TEP’s innovative residential rooftop solar program. The program offers customers utility-provided solar without the direct ownership or lease/PPA financing agreements that are typical of most residential solar installations. Instead, TEP customers can get a reduced, fixed electricity rate for 25 years in exchange for allowing the utility to take the power generated by the solar panels.
IOU of the Year: Making an antiquated grid work with new technology
Consolidated Edison's (Con Ed) initiative to integrate solar onto the New York City grid won the company the Investor-Owned Utility of the Year award from SEPA.
The utility received recognition for conquering the challenges of integrating commercial-industrial scale rooftop solar into its legacy distribution system without compromising power quality or reliability.
When the utility was asked around 2012-2013 to integrate a 1.6 MW installation for Jetro Cash and Carry in the Bronx, “the first response was that it wouldn’t work because we didn’t have the ability to control a big reverse power flow,” explained Con Ed Sr. VP Bob Schimmenti.
But Con Ed saw solar technology coming on and saw a solution for the first customer that could be applied throughout its distribution system. “Solar is going to have an increased penetration,” Schimmenti said, “and we wanted to be ready.”
Output from a rooftop array not consumed onsite goes into the grid, said Solar Energy Systems President David Buckner, the system’s installer. That back-feeding into the networked grid causes the network protector at the transformer level to close. When the back-feeding stops, it reopens. With the solar continuing to generate, “the network protector reacts again and they go on doing this terrible little dance that causes problems around the grid.”
ConEd came up with a smart grid program that allowed some of that back-feed without shutting the system down.
“They did the hard work of making an antiquated grid work with new technology," Buckner said.
Solar on the Con Ed system is now almost doubling yearly, Schimmenti said. With 1,500 projects connected by mid-2015 and 2,500 anticipated in 2016, “it looks like it will remain strong.”
Over the next decade, Con Ed will have “more relationships with third parties, more leveraging of technology, and more of a marriage between the customer, the utility, and the third party around information, technology, and control,” Schimmenti said. “It will be very different than what we have today.”
Cooperative of the Year: It was possible and the time was now
While ConEd and TEP's Tilghman were honored for programs advancing solar use and integration, collaboration at the policy level was also honored.
Duke Energy proposed the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina (ECSC) and Central Electric Power Cooperative (CEPC), their generation and transmission (G&T) provider, for the electric cooperative of the year award.
Co-op leaders “effectively changed the conversation in South Carolina from one that was very adversarial and positional, to a conversation about ‘what we are interested in doing’ and ‘a shared vision’ for the future,” the nomination said.
As a result of the collaborative two year effort, the Distributed Energy Resources Act of 2014 (Act 236), South Carolina’s first solar legislation, won unanimous passage by both houses of the General Assembly.
“Our legislator looked to utilities, conservation interests, and solar businesses, and said ‘we’re gonna do something, you guys go figure out what,’” recalled South Carolina Coastal Conservation League Energy Program Director Hamilton Davis.
But without the co-op leaders “this would not have happened,” said Duke Energy Strategy and Policy Director Emily Felt. They brought stakeholders with divergent ideas and preconceptions together and “created the expectation that it was possible and that the time to do it was now.”
We began by looking “for opportunities, for the sweet spots that would work,” recalled ECSC CEO/President Mike Couick.
Perhaps more importantly, they “supported a robust dialogue on the facts of solar,” said Grant Reeves, senior vice president of TIG Sun Energy/The Intertech Group Sr, fending off “the emotional concerns you see in other states.”
When Act 236 was brought to the House floor and the list of endorsers was read, the Chair of the sponsoring committee “said it was highly unusual for all of us to even be in the same room,” recalled South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff Executive Director Dukes Scott. But the co-op leaders “got a product all of us could support.”
Act 236, according to SEPA, created a template for stakeholder collaboration and opened South Carolina with breakthroughs on solar incentives for utility customers, solar leasing, and new rules for net energy metering and interconnection.
Public Power Utility of the Year: Bringing solar to schools
The New York Power Authority (NYPA) received its award for taking solar to school.
As part of the $1 billion NY-SUN public-private initiative headed up by the New York Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), NYPA is seizing the opportunity offered by rooftops on schools to advance several goals at once.
Solar can save schools money on their energy budgets “but a lot of schools don’t know where to start,” said NYPA Lead Engineer John Markowitz. NYPA will be “an energy advisor at no cost or obligation that will let them know if solar makes sense for them.”
The utility will also find private sector installers for them who will finance, own, and operate solar on the school’s roofs at no upfront cost.
The K-Solar Program’s objective is to empower school districts “to procure affordable solar,” NYPA Lead Engineer Houtan Moaveni added. The reduced operating expenses can be used for education or facility improvements that will benefit students.
And the program “has the potential to create thousands of jobs in New York and generate millions of dollars in the local economies,” Moaveni said. “We hope to create a model that can be replicated by other public entities and governments for deploying solar energy.”
NYSERDA will also help build solar education programs so that “as the schools go solar, they will serve as examples and showcases for the larger community,” said NYSERDA Program Manager Max Joel.
K-Solar is “an excellent example of how government agencies need to work together,” said NY State Education Department Director of Facilities Planning Carl Thurnau.
Innovative Partner of the Year: Solar as a grid asset
When Hawaii’s rooftop solar installations were growing too fast for Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO), the states dominant electricity provider, to manage, interconnections ground to a halt. HECO turned to Enphase Energy for a solution. The inverter manufacturer’s response won the company SEPA's “Partner of the Year” award.
With abundant sun and high-priced electricity, solar is a very attractive proposition in Hawaii, said Enphase Sr. Director of Strategic Initiatives Ameet Konkar. But unprecedented rapid solar deployment created grid stability challenges for HECO. Enphase set out to understand how solar could instead support grid stability.
“Visibility is important,” Konkar said. “Enphase provides information on how much power is being produced and how much fluctuation there is in voltage and frequency. That is very important to the utility. Once you can provide visibility into the grid, the utilities can integrate a lot more solar.”
That visibility allows both HECO and solar installers to avoid the big costs of time and money from “truck rolls” that take technicians into the field to manually deal with distribution system issues.
“Because their inverters could be reprogrammed remotely, we were able to do it quickly,” said HECO Director of Research and Development Eric Kashiwamura.
Engineering by Enphase built in new frequency and low voltage ride-through smart inverter settings. They “turned what was a relatively passive device on the network into an active asset,” said CEO Paul Nahi. “It can be levered by the grid to make the entire system work seamlessly to support both the utilities and the ratepayers.”
The ability to manage the data “and provide visibility and control to utilities is what will be required of all next-generation power electronics sitting on the grid,” Nahi said. “We need to show we can do all that responsibly, we can do that while stabilizing the grid, and we can do that while being an asset to the utility and a partner with the utility.”
Partnering with utilities, providing ways to satisfy customers, and authoring policies that open the door to renewable energy are ways to encourage more utility-solar partnerships in the sector.
“It is about collaboration to overcome hurdles, whether they are on the policy, technical, or business sides," SEPA CEO Julia Hamm said.