A community solar project in Rushford, Minnesota. Credit: Clean Energy Resource Teams / Flickr / Creative Commons

Xcel Energy is updating its grid congestion maps in Minnesota with new data and details for clean energy developers in response to an order from state regulators.

Minnesota’s largest electric utility is updating an online mapping tool that helps solar developers and others determine where to site their projects.

State regulators over the summer asked Xcel Energy to file new hosting capacity analysis data and maps by Nov. 2. The utility has already provided a large volume of data and maps as the deadline approaches.

“We’re excited to see Xcel roll out the improvements ordered by the commission because they’re a step towards enabling customers to deploy distributed energy while avoiding time-consuming interconnections studies and costly upgrades,” said Yochi Zakai, an attorney with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP.

Zakai represents the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, which advocated for the changes along with Fresh Energy, publisher of the Energy News Network. Only one solar developer, Community Energy Futures, commented on the analysis.

Isabel Ricker, a Fresh Energy senior policy associate, said Xcel began publishing the maps in 2016. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s demands for refinements will transform them from looking like colored “heat maps” to images containing generating stations, substations, feeder lines and other energy infrastructure, along with popup boxes with data. Although the more refined data maps should be immediately useful to the solar community, Ricker said they will also influence planning for electric vehicle charging, beneficial electrification and other clean energy infrastructure.

The Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association did not participate in a docket on the maps, but the trade group’s executive director, David Shaffer, thinks his members will eventually see the benefit. For now, community solar developers know where the congested spots exist on the grid or can pay a small fee to Xcel for additional information to determine how much capacity exists at sites, he said.

Residential and commercial solar installers may be the chief beneficiaries because they can warn clients of any potential problems with their projects due to grid congestion or other issues, Shaffer said. The maps are available for free from Xcel’s website.

On a broader scale, the improved mapping could have a significant impact if the state adopts dynamic pricing, in which utilities and their customers pay more or less for power based on factors including grid congestion. Utilities could avoid infrastructure costs by having a developer build a community solar garden at a congested site. “A map with locational values allows you to do development based on dynamic pricing,” he said.

While praising Xcel’s progress, Zakai still sees a need for improvements. Maps are updated annually in November based on information pulled from the first quarter of the year. “The hosting capacity map will be stale soon after it’s published,” he said. Xcel should be encouraged to update the hosting analyses monthly, or simply more regularly, he said.

The utility will also have to provide downloadable data of line segments with limitations they may have for adding capacity at different connection spots. Xcel must now show the actual locations of distribution system lines instead of broad blocks of color used in past maps, Zakai said.

Xcel raised concerns that the data would violate customer privacy. However, the commission’s order applies privacy regulations it has already established for sharing utility data in other cases. If data violates those regulations, the utility does not have to provide it, he said.

The Interstate Renewable Energy Council wants the commission to restrict Xcel’s ability to redact data and to provide hourly load profiles for each circuit instead of annual data, Zakai said. Other utilities in larger urban areas such as Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., share more information than Xcel does and they have not experienced problems, he said.  

However, the utility warned that too much public information on the electric grid could be detrimental to the security of customers. After hearing from stakeholders that timely data would be helpful, though, Xcel told the commission it will work on releasing data more often than once a year.

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.