Technology pushes solar one step forward; Utilities pull it one step back

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If you’ve seen one trade show, you’ve seen them all. They all have the dull roar of a hundred simultaneous conversations and the drifting smell of $8 hot dogs. Last month I left the hundred degree Texas heat for the jacket-wearing weather of San Francisco because it was hosting Intersolar North America – one of the largest US solar shows.

The last day of Intersolar was slow, like any trade show’s last day. In between customer conversations, my colleague started a top ten list of the stereotypical people you meet at a show including the older guy with the largest solar project you’ve never heard of (“we’ll make millions together”) and the sweaty guy who asks for a purchasing manager, then product manager, then anyone who’d be interested in the products samples stuffed into his unusually large backpack.

Fortunately not all Intersolar attendees fell into the top ten list. I had the pleasure of meeting Rebecca* from BACKUP – the Better Action by Citizens for Kilowatts of Uninterruptible Power. BACKUP is protesting against a major California utility provider that is discouraging solar adoption.

Rules for connecting solar systems

More than 98% of solar systems are connected to the utility grid. By federal law, utilities must allow this interconnection, but they can mandate the interconnection requirements. This is like a father telling his sixteen-year-old son, “You can drive my Lexus, but first fill out these forms stating when and where you will go. You must wear clean clothes and do not touch the radio. Replace the gas you use, and complete my twelve-point inspection when you get back.” These types of strict and sometimes unnecessary requirements discourage the son from using the car, and discourage homeowners and businesses from installing solar systems.

To be fair, we expect utilities to have control over critical power management systems. Introducing a variety of distributed renewable power loads to the grid with no standards in place can cause power surges, safety concerns, and other disrupting forces. It is understandable for utilities to enforce technical requirements on solar systems for these reasons.

Global companies like Schneider Electric have already encountered similar requirements in other countries. Our XC-NA inverter has the full grid management features (like VAR control and voltage/frequency ride-through) being required by more and more countries.

Solar will evolve to meet new standards

Technology improvements will continue to push the solar industry forward and should satisfy utility power management requirements. The argument from BACKUP is that the major California utility requirements are not for power management reasons, but to discourage paying customers from installing and benefiting from free solar energy.

Utilities that are afraid of losing customers consider solar as a “T” on their SWOT analysis (that is, a threat). As I learned at Baylor business school, it is best to turn “T”s into “O”s – opportunities. In my next article, we’ll examine those utilities that have embraced helping their customers save energy.

*Name has been changed

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  • Great post, Stephanie! It will be interesting to see where interconnection agreements and things like Rule 21 take us.

  • I can see how this would upset the utility companies, but as you mentioned, it’s a threat that should be looked at as a possible opportunity, especially since solar energy/power will probably be the way of the future. Thanks for sharing!

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