Installing a solar PV system on a home can take as little as one day, but the timing to connect that system to the grid and begin electricity generation is still unpredictable. What happens during residential interconnection, and why is this bureaucratic utility process still holding up projects in the ever-maturing solar market?
Solar Power World talked to Sky Stanfield, attorney for the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), to learn more about residential interconnection and what can be done to improve the process.
What is interconnection?
Interconnection is the approval process by which utilities study a solar project to identify any potential impacts it will have on the grid. If the utility finds there will be impacts — like if the service transformer is not sized appropriately to take on the extra power — the utility then identifies the changes that must be made to the grid or the project to mitigate them. Then the utility determines who is responsible for the bill.
Some utilities are notorious for denying applications, requiring changes to solar projects or costly additional studies that add more waiting time.
In most cases, the utility studies the project’s potential impacts prior to granting a permit to ensure that system changes can be made in advance. Some more solar-forward states allow small residential projects to be installed before they even receive an interconnection agreement since they rarely have grid impacts.
After the interconnection agreement is issued and the project is installed, there are some cases where the utility will send a representative to the site to perform a physical review (sometimes called witness testing) to ensure it was installed according to plan and is operating correctly.
Often, at that step in the process, the utility physically installs the special meter that tracks the system’s energy and the net-metering benefits a homeowner will receive. This installation step can cause delays since it involves a truck-roll and manual labor.
Some utilities instead ask contractors to submit photos of the project as verification. If the project passes that review and receives permission to operate (PTO), the owner may turn on the system to begin generating their own electricity and collecting net-metering credits, if applicable.
Stanfield said receiving that PTO approval is the part of the interconnection process that causes the most headaches for project owners.
“One of the issues with a lot of interconnection standards, especially historically, was that the rules defined the process up to the interconnection agreement and then maybe had a section about witness testing, but there would be no timeline for when you actually get that official permission to operate,” Stanfield said.
The PTO is not a physical switch somewhere — it’s paperwork. Some utilities do set a time frame for issuing the PTO, but they often still miss the deadline.
“Here, you have a customer who has panels on their roof, and they’re like, ‘I want to start saving money.’ If the utility is just sitting on the paperwork, that’s pretty frustrating,” Stanfield said. “Then, the installer gets kind of caught in the middle between the customer and the utility.”
Most times, interconnection paperwork just languishes because of a shortage of utility staff that can complete it.
“It comes down to: How many people does the utility have processing applications and then what internal processes do they have to keep themselves organized and manage the workflow?” she said.
The approval holdup could also be the fault of the installer — for example, if contractors submit incomplete or erroneous interconnection applications. The utility then has to notify the contractor of errors, the contractor has to resubmit and the process drags on.
Stanfield said most states do offer expedited interconnection processes for smaller projects, where the application essentially contains the interconnection agreement along with it. If there are no paperwork errors and no necessary grid upgrades or project changes, the utility will counter-sign the application, send it back and give the customer and contractor the go-ahead to install the system.
IREC is pushing for more states and localities to adopt simplified processes to lower those soft costs incurred with waiting time. Utilities can help speed up solar projects by instituting efficient processes and hiring the appropriate staff to process the volume of interconnection applications in their queue.
Sara Brunt says
What legal recourse do I have. It’s been over a year iv been waiting for the hook up. The solar company won’t return my calls. The utility company won’t do anything to get it finished. They just keep saying they need more information. I can’t move forward as it is up to them. Shall I stop paying for the system that is not hooked up yet and ask them to come and remove there system from my roof? Do I need an attorney?
I’m in Pennsylvania and have a 13.3kw system. The Net meter rider was sent in on 8/12/22.
On 9/19/22 power company reveals flaws in paperwork which were corrected a few days later.
It was revealed to us on 10/27/22 by power company they said they have seen a 60% increase of solar applications month over month since late summer and have yet to get additional resources to process them all. Also the paperwork issue put us back to the end of the line. It is now 11/11/22, almost 3 months of generating power lost nearly 4MWh. Me thinks power company dragging their feet.
Now, Ms Pickerel, let’s talk about this picture of you turning on a circuit breaker. I was told by an ‘old’ electrician with burn scarred hands, that you wear at least heavy leather gloves when operating circuit breakers in panels and MCC sections. The things I see is at least you are standing to the side of the electric panel and you have long sleeves. Unfortunately if there is any polyester in that shirt, it would be a very bad thing if an (arc flash) incident occurs.
Later on in my career it was mandated that I too had to certify for NFPA 70-E training just like utility electricians have to do every two years. This is one of those (everybody) does it things and yet could end up in tragedy in about 2 milliseconds if something goes terribly wrong. For most 480 VAC and below panels at least a FRS uniform rating of 8 calories per centimeter flash resistance. The right type of rubber gloves for the voltage one is working on and leather gloves (over) the rubber gloves to keep sharp electrically charged points in a cabinet from piercing your rubber gloves. Now lets talk about inserting ear plugs and putting on a FRS rated balaclava, then the face shield to help protect your eyes.
What happens in an arc flash event? An arc of electricity turns metals in circuit breakers, relays, electronics components into a plasma and ejects this outward and usually into anyone or thing standing in front of the plasma arc. Let’s look at an incident. A VFD in an electrical panel is tagged out, you open the panel and can see no damage, do a couple of resistance checks and find no direct ground faults. You’re wearing your FRS, put in the ear plugs, on goes the balaclava, the face shield, check and put on the rubber gloves and the leather gloves over these. NOW, stand to one side of the VFD circuit breaker, if you are right handed use the left hand to turn on the circuit breaker, do not use your dominant hand. Take a deep breath hold it and set the circuit breaker. Wait several seconds before moving position. You say why? If you are standing in front of the circuit during an arc flash, the plasma will hit you at the speed of sound, several times when this happens one gets hit and the first thing they do is gasp, allowing super heated air to burn the lungs. The plasma expands the air in the panel that the sound wave can break your ear drums. The leather gloves, rubber gloves, face shield and balaclava are made to be not only protective but (self extinguishing) after the plasma hits you.
Take a NFPA 70-E certification course, if it’s in person, ask the instructor some of his stories, it’s actually life altering. You be safe girl!
” If the utility finds there will be impacts — like if the service transformer is not sized appropriately to take on the extra power — the utility then identifies the changes that must be made to the grid or the project to mitigate them.”
If the utility is using “I don’t know” for the size of the feeder transformer to your property, then this would be a tell of heartache’s to come. I have been denied a system array output size based on the transformer feeding my property though. This last solar PV system was supposed to be 16kWp, but the utility Engineer said it could not be over 25% of the feeder transformers maximum rating. I ended up with a 14.4kWp array.
The other problem is locally mandated soft costs to get a permit to construct. My current solar PV system now required two ‘two wet stamps’ on the construction plans submitted to the County. One from a Civil Engineer and one from an Electrical Engineer. This was close to another $2k in soft costs, before a permit was issued. In this instance the utility actually did some Engineering work when they set the maximum array size the electrical and array size was pretty much defined by that.
” Most times, interconnection paperwork just languishes because of a shortage of utility staff that can complete it.”
I’d say the driving force here is when the utility files a rate case with the SCC, PUC and electricity rates go up. Folks look at their electric bills and say NO MORE, it’s time for solar PV and energy storage. When that happens all of a sudden the utility is understaffed.