In Illinois, New Rules Expected to Make Solar Faster and Cheaper

The rules come at a critical time for Illinois’ energy future.

SOURCEMidwest Energy News
Photo by: santontcady / Creative Commons

Illinois lawmakers have adopted new interconnection standards that will make the solar siting and installation process significantly quicker and cheaper, clean energy advocates and utilities say.

The Illinois state standards, adopted Oct. 11, are based on a rule establishing best practices that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) adopted in late 2013. The standards are being held up as a model for other states, including Iowa and Minnesota, which are currently going through interconnection rule-making processes.

Interconnection is the process of making sure that a new solar installation won’t cause problems on the grid, including studying the infrastructure and typical supply and demand on that section of the grid and installing any equipment needed to moderate energy flow. In some states where large amounts of solar power were added to the grid quickly, including Hawaii, California and Massachusetts, backlogs in the interconnection process caused headaches for utilities, developers and customers hoping to install solar.

The concentration of solar energy is still relatively low in Illinois, and solar advocates say it is important that Illinois has adopted forward-thinking interconnection standards so that it will be ready as — solar advocates hope — increasing amounts of solar are proposed.

“Illinois is the first through the gate” with the new standards in the Midwest, said Brad Klein, an attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which took the lead on the Illinois standards along with the Citizens Utility Board.

“But there’s a real trend to adopt these best practices, and we in the Midwest are doing a good job of being prepared. We’re looking to states that have actually experienced high volumes of solar, they’ve had to be ahead of us because of the state of the market. We’re doing a good job in taking those lessons and applying them here so we’re prepared and ready.”

Streamlined process

The new standards update interconnection rules adopted in 2008, based on an earlier set of best practices that FERC had put forth in 2005. The Illinois rules also include provisions that are not in the FERC model but have proved successful in other states, according to Sky Stanfield, an attorney with the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC).

The rules streamline the process for interconnection approval and eliminate unnecessary study requirements.

They also mandate that utilities give solar developers information ahead of time so they can choose locations where the interconnection process will be smooth. Previously, developers had to file an official interconnection application and go through various other steps before getting this information. California adopted similar transparency and cost certainty provisions in updated interconnection rules this summer.

“Before, the developer was in the dark, wandering around looking for sites, and the way they did that was to submit interconnection applications,” said Stanfield. “That creates two backlogs — for the developer and the utility which can’t review all those applications at one time.”

The new approach “avoids them submitting all these speculative applications, and the ones that do get submitted tend to be real projects instead of these speculative projects.”

The interconnection process involves a cascading series of “screens” to determine whether a proposed project will have certain effects or trigger certain precautions on the grid.

Klein noted that experts examined how things played out in states like Hawaii and California to inform Illinois’ policy.

“We’re able to study how the grid operated in those situations, to use that real world experience to update technical criteria to enable more projects to pass through expedited review,” he said. “Then you can reserve resources for those larger projects that actually require more thorough study, and avoid putting projects through lengthy and expensive studies that actually don’t require it.”

Tom Stanton is principal researcher for energy and environment at the National Regulatory Research Institute, the research arm of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC). Stanton noted that technology is changing so rapidly, a technical review process that might have taken weeks or months in the past can now theoretically be accomplished in a  matter of days. The National Regulatory Research Institute is holding a public webinar on November 30 about interconnection rules.

“The technology is moving ahead way faster than the rules,” nationwide, Stanton said. “As utilities get access to more and better distribution system modeling software, it will be drastically easier and cheaper to analyze” the factors involved in interconnection. “If the process of moving from the completed application to turning on the power can be reduced to just a few days, it might behoove policy makers to think about whether interconnection rules and procedures need to change to reflect that capability.”

Utility support

Across the country, utilities have often been reluctant – or even hostile – regarding the proliferation of distributed solar, and interconnection standards can be a battleground. But Klein and Stanfield said the state’s utilities, ComEd and Ameren, and the advocacy groups and renewable energy companies working on the rules were able to find much common ground.

Spokespeople for both ComEd and Ameren Illinois said they support the new rules.

The rules “simplify the interconnection process by reducing the time to research interconnection options,” and may result in reduced fees for some customers, said ComEd spokesman John Schoen.

Ameren spokesperson Marcelyn Love said, “The interconnection rules adopted by Illinois in 2008 have served our customers well, and the new changes should make them even more effective.”

Klein concluded that, “While there is often some concern from the utilities initially about giving up a little control that they’ve always had, at the end of the day there’s a much greater comfort level and a pretty wide-ranging recognition that this is a good policy for everybody.”

One point of contention, Stanfield said, was over a manual external disconnect switch that interconnection rules have typically required, allowing utility workers the ability to physically disconnect solar installations from the grid when they are doing maintenance or suspect a problem. Advocates say that with smart inverters and other smart grid technology, such disconnection can be done virtually and a physical switch is not necessary or efficient.

Utilities see it differently.

“The external disconnect switch is key to protecting the safety of ComEd workers in the event they need to service the line running to the solar system,” said Schoen.

Solar advocates were unsuccessful in removing the switch provision from the new interconnection rules. But Stanfield said advocates were pleased to secure a provision in the rules that mandates the utilities collect data on how often the switches are actually used.

There was also contention over a provision known as the “no construction” screen, which mandates additional study when new construction on the line is needed. Utilities essentially prevailed with the new rules in maintaining higher levels of scrutiny in such situations.

Setting precedent

The Illinois Commerce Commission still needs to adopt the rules, but experts say that is highly likely to happen since the administrative body in the state legislature, the Joint Council on Administrative Rules, has approved them.

Stanfield and Klein said it’s likely other state bodies and utilities will look to Illinois’ rules and process for precedent.

The interconnection rules, which advocates have felt optimistic about for some time, drove IREC to boost Illinois’ score from B to A for interconnection on their report card Freeing the Grid, which also analyzes net metering policies and other smart grid-related factors for different states. Minnesota got a C and Iowa and Indiana got B’s for interconnection policies.

Stanfield noted that Ohio, which got an A on the scorecard, was the first state to adopt FERC’s 2013 best practices, perhaps unexpected since other state policies instituted in Ohio are considered hostile to solar. Meanwhile Stanfield and Klein hope that Iowa and Minnesota policymakers look to Illinois as they update their interconnection standards.

In Minnesota, Stanfield explained, “their big community solar program resulted in some very severe problems” with interconnection backlogs, specifically with Xcel Energy. “Now they are going through the process to open up their standards. But they went through a pain point which we want other states to avoid.”

Laura Hannah is the energy markets senior policy analyst at Fresh Energy, a nonprofit which has been deeply involved with the discussions over Minnesota’s community solar program and interconnection rules (Midwest Energy News is based at Fresh Energy).

“Minnesota was pioneering 12 years ago when establishing state rules for interconnection, but at that time the majority of applications were requests to interconnect backup generators,” Hannah explained. “In some areas the rules are too burdensome, but the issues are more often because the rules did not anticipate the specific challenges and volume of today’s interconnection requests. The conversation and outcome in Illinois should provide momentum to move more quickly forward in Minnesota and other Midwest states.”

Meanwhile in Illinois, the rules come at a critical time for Illinois’ energy future, as ComEd, the generator Exelon and clean energy groups have been working feverishly with legislators on an energy bill that could be introduced after the election or next year.

“ComEd supports the growth of renewable energy and believes adoption of [the new interconnection rules] will expand and increase interconnection applications,” said Schoen. “We’d like to also add that ComEd supports the growth of solar in Illinois and have been in discussions with Exelon, the Clean Jobs Coalition, and other stakeholders on legislation that would jumpstart renewables and provide significant funding for low-income community solar in addition to a host of other low-income and customer benefits.

“And, while we are still working on some details, a lot of good work has been done on creating a package that will secure Illinois energy future and make our state a leader in this space.”

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