National Grid on Friday released results for the first part of an interconnection study that put nearly 1 gigawatt worth of Massachusetts solar projects on hold. Sixty-eight projects can move forward with no added transmission cost, the utility said.
Just a single project out of the 320 megawatts studied in Part 1 of the “cluster study” will have to pay for a transmission upgrade, the costs of which National Grid is still estimating. The results mean that a large chunk of projects out of the 1-gigawatt study, most of which consists of community solar, can progress.
The utility initiated its cluster study in May, identifying nearly a gigawatt worth of projects that it said required transmission-level impact analysis. The first phase was designed to study projects in more advanced stages of development. After some applicant attrition, that portion dropped from 372 megawatts to the 320 megawatts for which National Grid reported results on Friday.
Though the results could allay some developer concerns, solar advocates say the study has already been the source of significant strain.
“The process has caused a lot of anxiety and hardship for the development community for the past six months,” said Jeremy McDiarmid, vice president of policy and government affairs at the Northeast Clean Energy Council. “The end result…allows many developers to have a little bit of relief, but I also want to make sure we talk a little bit about the big picture and what this signifies for development in the Northeast going forward.”
“I think you’re going to see a lot more studies of this type across the region that are going to expose this challenge. [...] If we want to have the level of clean energy investment that we’re asking for and we need, we’re going to have to build a system that can accommodate it,” McDiarmid added.
And National Grid’s study isn’t over yet. Part 2, which encompasses projects without interconnection agreements, is slated for completion in March 2020.
“We’re thrilled...[that] we’re through this phase,” said Tim Roughan, National Grid’s director of regulatory strategy, referring to Part 1, while cautioning that Part 2 projects are likely to require “more significant upgrades.”
“Part 2 will likely result in the expansion of existing substations and...[the construction of] new substations so we can have enough distribution capacity to connect those projects,” said Roughan.
Because of application attrition, that portion of the study now encompasses about 400 megawatts' worth of projects.
National Grid said it had not missed or delayed any connection dates due to its analysis, but some developers dispute those claims. They argue that persistent uncertainty has extended project timelines and pushed back the date on which projects begin earning money.
Greentech Media spoke with several developers in August — including some that had their entire pipelines swallowed by the study — about worries that the process would hinder development and hurt project economics. Several noted that they had projects already constructed and waiting for interconnection.
The cluster study became part of a larger drama in October when the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities announced an investigation into National Grid’s management. The DPU cited the utility’s handling of the cluster study as a possible indication of mismanagement at National Grid’s highest levels.
The utility told Greentech Media that the audit “provides us the opportunity to reinforce our commitment to continuous improvement.”
McDiarmid said the investigation should act as a signal to all utilities that modern grid issues need to be addressed “very proactively,” which he said more utilities are coming to realize. The cluster study, McDiarmid said, is “a symptom of a grid that hasn’t kept up with the times.”