The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) launched an investigation into utility National Grid in a filing published late last month, which it says will “address the efficiencies of operations and productivity of National Grid’s management and personnel.”
The probe comes in response to a controversial "cluster study" on distributed generation from the utility, which has added a dash of chaos to the state's solar development goals. The decision to initiate that study this spring, plus what the DPU called National Grid’s “failure to meaningfully engage with the department and stakeholders” beforehand, added to the DPU’s concerns about a potentially uncoordinated approach to modern grid issues.
“The department finds that the company and its ratepayers would benefit from a more in-depth review of National Grid’s management practices through a comprehensive independent management audit,” the filing reads.
DPU also pointed to questions about National Grid’s IT strategy and cybersecurity plan, as well as inefficient staffing for the two phases of its electric vehicle program. The DPU said it will examine National Grid’s “strategic planning processes,” its staffing decisions and “potential management problems through to the highest levels of the organization.” Shareholders will pay for the audit.
A spokesperson for the utility said the review provides "opportunity to reinforce our commitment to continuous improvement as we strive to provide our customers with the level of service they expect and deserve."
"As we always do with our internal management reviews, we will seek to emerge from the process prepared to embed any critical learnings into our way of doing business,” the company said in an emailed statement.
National Grid’s cluster study encompasses nearly 1 gigawatt of projects, much of it community solar, totaling more than half of the state’s solar target under the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) incentive program that was rolled out last year.
The utility, which has more than 1 million customers in Massachusetts in addition to a footprint in Rhode Island, New York and the United Kingdom, initiated the study to determine potential need for transmission upgrades in certain parts of the state. When SMART began, the utility received a deluge of 253 distributed generation applications compared to 33 in the same month the previous year.
Because of that influx of demand, National Grid suggested that the study was essentially inevitable in a statement made to Greentech Media in August. But the DPU argues that the utility “was aware of the magnitude and scope of these issues well before the Cluster Study began” based on prior distribution system studies. Solar developers are concerned about significant delays to their Massachusetts pipelines, and the DPU appears to be concerned as well.
“The delay could be years, depending on the length of the study and the time needed to implement any necessary system upgrades,” reads the filing.
Alongside the cluster study, the DPU itself opened an investigation in May into the interconnection of distributed generation in Massachusetts. It aims to determine potential changes needed due to SMART-related demand. Comments in that docket are ongoing, although comments on revisions to the distributed generation interconnection tariff are due Friday.
The DPU did not respond to immediate requests for comment about the status of the National Grid investigation.
Regulators embedded the announcement of the investigation within a document approving higher base distribution rates for National Grid electric service, the first in three years, according to reporting from the State House News Service. The DPU also approved electric vehicle programs, including one encouraging residents to charge EVs during off-peak periods and another incentivizing the addition of EVs to government and public transportation vehicle fleets.
This story has been updated with comment from National Grid.