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State regulators recently updated interconnection standards to streamline the process for most solar projects.
Solar installers should have an easier time connecting their projects to Minnesota’s electric grid by this time next year.
Minnesota regulators recently approved a major update to the state’s interconnection standards for small generators, which outline procedures for how utilities work with renewable installers and developers.
The new procedures were designed to cut down on surprises and wait times for most projects, and they largely follow an already established process used by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
Bradley Klein, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) in Chicago, said the standards have saved time and money in states such as Iowa, Ohio, and Illinois where they have been adopted.
“It signals the state is prepared and is at a level of maturity that makes investments easier,” said Klein, whose organization worked with Minnesota regulators to update the standards.
The new standards allow developers to request pre-application reviews to find out if the planned location of a project has capacity on the grid. Utilities with more than 40 applications a year must publish their connection queue to allow to allow tracking of projects and to issue yearly reports on their interconnection activity.
Mid-sized projects can avoid paying or waiting for a full interconnection study reporter and use a fast-track process instead, Klein noted. And projects under 20 kilowatts (kW) will follow a simplified application process. The update also added a new path for connecting energy storage projects to the grid.
Sara Baldwin Auck, director of the Regulatory Program at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), which also worked on the Minnesota standards, said data doesn’t exist yet on how much time is saved by using the FERC-based standards, but whatever accrues ultimately helps customers.
“It helps the end user, because any cost incurred by the developer, and any delays, will be paid for by the customer in the end,” Auck said.
The standards mostly affects solar, but wind advocates like the inclusion of energy storage in the new rules. Beth Soholt, executive director of Wind on the Wires, said the rules could become more relevant to wind developers as microgrid projects are built combining small wind with storage.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the updated Small Generator Interconnection Procedures last month, but the formal process for adopting them started in 2014 when the rules were issued.
The issue emerged after the state’s community solar program took off earlier this decade. The excitement around solar gardens led to interconnection requests for more than 2 gigawatts worth of projects, followed by long delays for approvals, said David Shaffer, policy and development director of the Minnesota Solar Electric Industries Association (MnSEIA).
A working group led by Xcel Energy came up with an improved process for community solar requests that looks very much like the new statewide interconnection standard, Shaffer said. The advantage of the new rules is that they will apply across the state to all utilities and include all forms of renewable energy and energy storage, he said.
Clean energy advocates are mostly happy with the update, but one criticism is that it allows up to 11 weeks for approval of small solar systems of less than 20 kW. “It’s unclear why that made sense,” said Auck, who noted most states limit those reviews to four weeks because they are so small.
Laura Hannah, a senior policy associate with Fresh Energy, a St. Paul nonprofit advocacy group that also helped shape the rules, said that timeline matters because so much of the rest of the permit and inspection process for solar installations takes hours or days, not weeks.
“For the utility process to take 11 weeks is the longest part of this process…all of the wait time is on the utility,” she said. “It should be as fast as possible.”
The Energy News Network is an editorial independent project of Fresh Energy.
The PUC could decide to change the limit prior to the start date for the interconnection standards, Hannah said. Shaffer did not see the longer time frame as a huge issue because the overall impact of the standard will be positive.
“I would say it’s unfortunate, but it is what it is,” Shaffer said. “Do I believe the utilities could move faster? Absolutely. But is it the end of the world? I don’t think so.”
The new interconnection rules are set to take effect in June 2019.