In a recent State of the State address, California Governor Jerry Brown called for a goal of 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 -- up from the current mandate of 33 percent by 2020. And it's looking like it may not be that hard to reach.
The legislature is set to pass SB 350, which would codify the governor’s 2030 goals of a 50 percent renewable energy requirement (RPS), a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use in transportation, and a 50 percent increase in efficiency in buildings. These are groundbreaking developments that will keep California at the forefront of the global energy policy debate.
The latest development in California’s renewables push is a new set of online interconnection maps from the state’s big three utilities. These online maps were made available July 1 and are part of the Distribution Resources Plan (DRP) proceeding at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).
The maps are intended to show developers key information about the interconnection potential for solar, electric vehicles and battery storage. This is a prelude to a more formal interconnection application. The new maps contain far more actionable and searchable information than in the past. I want to focus on how these maps have been improved and how they may be improved further still.
I wrote recently about how California could overhaul interconnection and procurement for wholesale distributed generation, and this article expands upon the themes introduced in that piece.
A new “click-and-claim” option for online interconnection maps
California’s utilities have had online interconnection maps for many new years now, stemming in part from the advocacy efforts of my clients, the Clean Coalition and the Community Environmental Council, at the CPUC over the last five years. These online maps provide some information for developers about the potential for interconnecting distributed renewable generation of 20 megawatts and below. However, the information has been far from definitive, not always accurate and always subject to change.
The maps have been significantly improved in this latest version as part of the DRP process at the commission. It’s great to see the utilities implement the CPUC’s vision well, but there is certainly more work to do. These maps should be the focal point of the new DRP process because they can readily disseminate all pertinent information to developers, policymakers and the public.
I argued previously that these maps should be modified to provide “click-and-claim” options for developers wishing to claim available megawatts of various types of distributed energy resources, and the new versions of the maps are a major step in that direction.
Under the click-and-claim option, developers would browse the online maps for pop-ups that show available interconnection capacity of each type of resource. Bubbles pop up when the cursor moves over a circuit or line section (the grid unit below the circuit) or when the circuit or line section is clicked on. The same capacity can also be claimed in searchable tables.
SCE’s new online map (Distributed Energy Resources Interconnection Map, or DERIM) is currently the most advanced of the new maps because it includes a very usable search function covering its entire grid.
The key part of the new maps is the Integration Capacity Analysis (ICA) that the CPUC ordered to be included. As PG&E suggested in a recent webinar on its new map, this ICA could become a substitute for the traditional interconnection process. This means that the ICA constitutes a grid-wide preliminary study of available interconnection capacity -- the core of the click-and-claim system for interconnection streamlining that I have previously advocated.
Under this approach, developers will be able to click on the desired circuit or line section and by hitting a “claim” button, initiate the streamlined interconnection process for the specified megawatts.
To avoid queue-hogging that could stem from such an easy claim process, the claimant will need to meet various milestones. For example, the claimant should be required to show land ownership or a lease option for the property at issue within a certain timeframe of claiming the online megawatts. If the claimant doesn’t meet a milestone, it loses its claim and the available megawatts go back into the pool for some other claimant.
A preapproval process will be necessary for developers to obtain eligibility for click-and-claim. Once eligibility is obtained, the developer can use the online maps and claim as many megawatts as is allowed for each developer. Some kind of developer concentration limit should be imposed, as is often already the case for other distributed resource programs. This fosters diversity among developers and ensures that a handful of the biggest and most deep-pocketed developers don’t get all the available capacity as it becomes available.
ICAs should be updated by each utility at least each month -- or better yet, in real time -- which will also update the online maps and the available megawatts for each type of resource. This process will be automated so it won’t be burdensome for the utilities to provide ongoing updates.
Combining interconnection and procurement in the click and claim process
We can also streamline procurement in the same way. That is, by clicking and claiming any available megawatts, claimants should eventually (within the next couple of years) be able to obtain both interconnection approval (based on the pre-studies) and a preapproved power sales contract (PPA) at the avoided cost or some other appropriate rate. This rate would include the value of energy to the grid and locational values from distributed generation.
The CPUC’s DRP process is already studying the locational benefits of distributed resources. If the grid sees benefits provided by particular resources in particular locations, it would make sense to plug these values into the maps as an appropriate contract value for the technology at issue, above and beyond the value of the generation alone.
A major advantage of distributed resources is that they provide many additional distribution grid benefits. These benefits have already been quantified in the DRPs, so the policy framework is already in place to use these valuations as part of a new procurement process.
The first step of adding locational benefits as a factor will be to factor locational benefits information into the online maps as “information only.” This will provide valuable information to developers about the most beneficial locations for new projects.
The tools I’ve outlined here would put California squarely at the forefront of interconnection and procurement streamlining in the U.S., and probably around the world. It would reduce the current interconnection process for distributed resources -- which takes from nine months to three years -- down to literally a click of a mouse. This would be made possible due to the already-completed ICAs.
The interconnection process will not be entirely automated because the ICAs involve utility engineers in a manner similar to the current interconnection study process. This should ameliorate utility concerns about too much automation occurring too soon. Moreover, once a developer clicks and claims a spot in the interconnection queue, there will still be some review by a utility engineer to double-check the ICA results and ensure that the proposed project can be safely interconnected.
California is leading the way again in this exciting new technology field. By truly streamlining interconnection and eventually procurement, ratepayers will save a lot in avoided transaction costs from lengthy delays and utility engineer labor, and we should also see the long-underrated distributed energy sector finally get its due recognition.
Tam Hunt is a lawyer and owner of Community Renewable Solutions LLC, a renewable energy project development and policy advocacy firm based in Santa Barbara, California and Hilo, Hawaii. He's also author of the upcoming book, Solar: Why Our Energy Future Is So Bright.