A solar installer lays a panel on a rooftop. Credit: Kate Costa / U.S. Department of Energy

The state recently became the first in the nation to adopt a new national standard for connecting to the electric grid.

Minnesota recently became the first state in the nation to adopt a new national interconnection standard that could spur more clean energy projects.

Interconnection standards provide “rules of the road” processes and procedures that must be followed by solar, storage and other clean energy providers and utilities serving them. Updated standards allow for more clean energy, storage and the introduction of smart grid capabilities.

Minnesota chose to incorporate IEEE 1547-2018, an emerging national standard designed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Several organizations advocated for the standard, including the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

“This establishes modern, clear, and more efficient interconnection standards for distributed generation in Minnesota,” said Sky Stanfield, partner with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, attorneys for IREC. “It’s good for the grid and distributed generation in the state.”

Driven by demand for clean energy and bolstered by new technology that makes for a more efficient and reliable grid, many states have begun updating interconnection standards, among them Michigan, Iowa, Illinois and Maryland.

IREC and other clean energy organizations believe refreshed interconnection standards will jumpstart greater penetration of distributed energy resources. Many states operate with rules designed for a time when the grid had few clean energy generators. A more sophisticated standard would allow for higher growth of solar and storage, advocates say.

Minnesota regulators managed a two-stage process for updating interconnection standards. The first round of changes that involved policies and procedures for connecting to the grid took effect in summer 2019. The second part — technical guidelines — received approval recently from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission but will not take effect until the summer of 2020.

The commission’s technical standard includes a variety of details on new and existing technologies and requires utilities to create “technical service manuals” available to clean energy developers. The manuals will have information specific to each utility in Minnesota.

Perhaps most prominently, the new interconnection standards include rules on “smart inverters” that allow the grid to absorb more distributed generation while maintaining safety and reliability, said Brian Lydic, IREC’s chief regulatory engineer.

More sophisticated smart inverters are an emerging technology that mitigates the problem of rising and dropping voltage and frequency, allowing more distributed generation without additional infrastructure, he added.

They perform the same function as standard models — transferring power from direct to alternate current — while providing the advantage of adding more features that benefit grid stability, he said.

Though Minnesota’s standard is a significant improvement over the previous version, regulators could have gone even further in anticipating future issues, Lydic said. The standard does not promote a technology called “volt/VAR” that allows for more sophisticated voltage regulation in smart inverters.

Despite not being included in the interconnection standard, California and Hawaii have incorporated volt/VAR. Greentech Media reported the volt/VAR market grew 39% between 2014 and 2018 to more than half a billion dollars.

Stanfield said the new standard does little to clarify how energy storage will be incorporated into the grid in the future. The standard added few procedural or technical details related to storage.

But regulators declined to add much detail because no national standards exist for volt/VAR or storage, said Craig Turner, senior principal and regulatory engineer for Dakota Electric Association. The state did not want to move forward with a standard that might not be in line with a national one being developed now, he said.   

David Shaffer, executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, said among his members “we’ve seen a lot of excitement for phase two. We believe a lot of good stuff will come out of it. It will be interesting to see how it’s actually put into practice.”

Minnesota began the process of redesigning its decade-old interconnection standard in 2016 after regulators were petitioned by IREC, working in a partnership with the Environmental Law & Policy Center and Fresh Energy, publisher of Energy News Network.

The initiative came as a result of many interconnection fights brought on by the rapid growth of Minnesota’s community solar garden program, the largest in the country, said Isabel Ricker, senior policy associate at Fresh Energy. Many developers and Xcel Energy, which operates the community solar program, wanted updated regulations.

The new standard’s inclusion of rules for smart inverters will “automatically stabilize the grid and that should be a good thing,” she said. “It will allow more distributed generation to be installed.”

Benjamin Stafford, Clean Energy Economy Minnesota’s director of policy and public affairs, said solidifying the interconnection standard creates a predictable process for businesses and homeowners interested in adding solar.

“For our members, the kind of clarity the new interconnection standard offers is a good thing,” he said. “It’s really been improved. This is a positive step forward and I’m encouraged by what the commission did here.”

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Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.