ST. PAUL, Minn. – The number of Minnesota solar projects stranded due to Xcel Energy delays has swelled to more than 300, with a backlog of applications that solar industry executives say will take decades to resolve at the current rate of service public.
In a case in central Minnesota, Xcel told a customer it would have to wait 15 years for the company to review its request to connect a 9.5 kilowatt rooftop system to the utility’s distribution grid. .
“This is the number one issue that I hear from our members. I get emails every day about this, ”said Logan O’Grady, executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association.
The nonprofit Energy News Network provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit News.
An analysis by the association concluded that at the current rate it would take Xcel Energy nearly 260 years to clear the backlog of claims. Most of those waiting are community solar projects in suburbs outside the Twin Cities.
In a statement to regulators, Xcel Energy said it recognized “that we have not met the expectations of the Commission and our customers”. The utility recently said that starting in October, it will speed up and cover some of the cost of network upgrades required for small installations by homeowners and businesses.
But that still leaves hundreds of bigger projects in limbo, with solar developers calling for further reforms, including a third-party investigation of the process or legislative action if it doesn’t improve.
Minnesota utility regulators and solar energy stakeholders have spent years negotiating improvements to the state’s interconnection rules, which govern how utilities respond to generation connection demands. distributed to their networks. The highly technical and regulated process requires weeks or months of study and due diligence to ensure projects do not disrupt network reliability.
The most recent reforms came into effect in the summer of 2019 and were aimed at speeding up approval times. Instead, the process slowed down further, with Xcel ultimately paying a $ 1 million fine to resolve 120 customer complaints that year. Last year was no different, with Xcel missing deadlines more than half the time at every step of the interconnection process, even for small systems in residential areas. By August of this year, the utility had put 316 requests “on hold” due to capacity constraints, an 86% increase from last year.
Most of the backlog consists of community solar projects that want to connect in congested suburban areas. Community solar subscribers must live in the county where the garden is located or in an adjacent county. The limitation has left solar developers scrambling to find land in peri-urban areas.
Only 37 applications pending approval are small solar projects for households and businesses, like the one receiving the 15-year waiting notice. Starting in October, the utility said it would pay for utility power upgrades up to $ 15,000 for residential customers of Solar Rewards, a problem that has come to a head in Northfield more early this year.
Xcel said 15% of its transmission line and substation network carry most community solar projects. “The explosive growth of the CSG (community solar garden) alongside the development of policy has led many of the society’s feeders surrounding the metropolitan area of the Twin Cities to become saturated with DER (distributed energy resources), so that many projects have now been put on hold and smaller systems have encountered their own challenges, ”the utility wrote in a file.
In a statement last week to Energy News Network, Xcel said it has hired engineers and other solar experts to work on applications. It plans to ask the Public Utilities Commission to require developers to participate in cluster or group studies and allow it to reserve capacity on its system for smaller solar installations.
As in the past, Xcel stressed that Minnesota’s community solar program remains by far the largest in the country, concluding that it has “proposed a regulatory path to allow the Commission to provide further guidance on its vision to balance the reliability and performance of the network with meeting the needs of customers and the solar industry.
At least one solar developer argues that the problems go beyond these congested areas. Julian White, partner of Nokomis Energy, said the company has identified less congested substations and the delays are still growing. The project schedule, Nokomis wrote in a submission to regulators, has doubled from 110 to 244 days when reviewing pending projects.
The basic scheme of the state’s interconnection process is not flawed, but could be changed, according to Isabel Ricker, senior director of clean electricity for Fresh Energy, a nonprofit environmental policy group that publishes also the Energy News Network.
“Typically we think the issues are more with Xcel’s implementation and internal processes than issues with the language (interconnect process) itself,” Ricker said. “There are definitely areas where we need to add more detail, change the wording or clarify. “
Until the delays are resolved, solar industry executives say the state is leaving jobs on the table. The Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association has estimated that the pipeline of unapproved solar projects will create 750 to 900 jobs.
Last year, regulators asked Minnesota utilities for proposals that could accelerate clean energy investments to revitalize the economy. A good way to do this, said White of Nokomis Energy, is to advance solar projects in Xcel’s interconnect queue.
“The bigger idea is that there are still 300 megawatts in those queues, and that’s the economic recovery. These are local jobs, ”White said. “For me, it’s always been a bit of a puzzle. These are megawatts that can get people to work right now and can lead to savings right now. “
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and the stakeholder groups formed to address the issue have received numerous submissions from local and state organizations suggesting improvements. Suggestions include having a third party investigate the process to determine where problems are occurring, or requiring the use of cluster or group studies at busy feeding stations – an approach that now adopts Xcel.
David Shaffer, director of policy and government affairs at Novel Energy Solutions, suggests that a third-party investigation of the queue could determine responsibility for the slowdown and identify approaches to alleviate the bottlenecks. An investigation could investigate disputes over factual issues, the problem of engineer turnover, missed deadlines and the potential for institutional obstruction. “Developers see these things differently from Xcel and an investigator would be able to give us some insight,” Shaffer said.
Michael Allen, CEO of All Energy Solar, said he and other developers would like more transparency from Xcel, including more details on his proposal to help cover the costs of Solar Rewards customers and upgrade other infrastructure when installing solar. Other commentators filed with regulators agreed with Allen, noting that other utilities share the cost of upgrades and even publish “cost guides” that customers can use to anticipate future payments.
Xcel has filed several lengthy documents with regulators detailing the changes to move the queue, but some industry officials remain skeptical. “I’m more on the road that if we want to clarify something, we need the legislature to tell the (Public Utilities Commission) what to do,” said O’Grady of the solar industry association.
The developers saw some improvement with the residential backup almost wiped out. White said Nokomis Energy staff have seen more engineers and regulatory analysts than in the past. “I am definitely optimistic that we will achieve a better place collectively,” he said.