Across the industry, thesolarinterconnection process -- the method of connecting a new rooftop solar customer safely to the electric grid -- can take about four weeks on average.

Bottlenecks due to lengthy applications and paperwork reviews can hold up this process and unfortunately may deter customers from converting to solar. However, by modernizing and streamlining systems, as well as moving more resources online, utilities can drastically reduce interconnection times, saving customers and utilities time and money. Beyond quicker interconnection timelines, improving levels of customer education and proactive service during the first year of solar also bring added satisfaction to new solar customers.

Over the last few years, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has pursued technical and process improvements that have significantly shortened the interconnection timeline to just five days. To date, PG&E has connected more than 175,000 solar customers to the grid -- accounting for 25 percent of the entire nation’s solar capacity. Our experience offers valuable lessons for increasing collaboration between utilities, installers and other partners -- as well as making solar an easier, more attractive energy alternative for customers.

Providing solar education and resources

Many customers want to go solar, but it’s not always easy to understand the different factors involved in making the leap -- and what follows after you do. Even before interconnection, the first step toward helping a customer go solar is to provide them with a greater understanding of the overall process and the steps that need to be taken.

For example, PG&E customers interested in adopting solar can go to a designated area of the utility's website to learn about the various options and resources available, including finding an experienced contractor, learning about different financing options, and how to take the right steps to ensure their home and appliances are energy-efficient in order to maximize their solar investment.

Supporting customers’ solar journey: Before, during and after

After interconnection, the first year for solar customers can be a new and exciting but somewhat confusing time, and proactive communication about the customer’s new billing process goes a long way.

Utilities should consider the following tactics, areas where PG&E has already seen success, for helping new solar customers through their first year:

  • Sending a welcome kit after their solar system is interconnected to explain how their solar bill works
  • Distributing targeted communications at key times throughout the first year with additional education and resources
  • Creating a redesigned solar bill with simple explanations to help customers understand their annual charges and credits
  • Implementing a dedicated solar contact center that provides knowledgeable and specialized solar customer service to answer questions at any point in the solar process
  • Designating an easy-to-use online portal that allows solar customers to track their charges and credits throughout the year and understand how much money they have saved

Working together to improve solar interconnection

Bottlenecks stemming from applications and document reviews are the primary reason for delaying the interconnection process and could ultimately deter customers from going solar. Utilities can drastically reduce interconnection times to save both themselves and their customers time and money by:

  • Working closely with solar vendors
  • Modernizing and streamlining systems
  • Moving more resources online

At PG&E, streamlining our internal application processing system has enabled the company to make solar interconnection highly automated, reducing costs, complexity and time.  Application costs have been reduced by 70 percent since 2013. In 2012, the minimum number of touch points was 13 for the entire review process. Now, the process requires only three touch points -- enabling more applications to be processed each day. Last year, PG&E connected a new solar customer to the grid every 11 minutes.

Maintaining solar growth

As solar continues to become increasingly popular across many regions in the U.S., it is more important than ever for utilities to work closely with solar vendors and others in the industry. Collaboration is key to helping utilities move toward improving their solar interconnection and customer service systems. By significantly reducing time to connect customers, moving resources and billing online while educating new customers about the solar experience, utilities will gain more customer loyalty, achieve higher customer satisfaction overall and save operational costs.

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Aaron Johnson is PG&E’s VP of customer energy solutions and leads the company’s efforts to support broader adoption of solar across its 70,000-square-mile service area serving 16 million Californians.