by Jeff St. John
March 24, 2017

Our past few dispatches from the grid edge have focused on California. Now, let’s turn our attention to the other big state with distributed energy dreams -- New York. 

This has been a busy spring for green energy in New York, with milestones in rooftop solar and offshore wind, big EV and microgrid announcements, and energy storage pilots.

Meanwhile, the New York Public Service Commission has issued some key rulings in its Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) proceeding, the sprawling and ambitious effort launched in 2014 by Gov. Cuomo and departing commission president Audrey Zibelman to make distributed energy an integral part of the grid. 

REV has led to some important technology demonstrations, such as Con Edison’s Brooklyn-Queens Demand Management project to replace a $1 billion substation upgrade with DERs, and its SunPower-Sunverge virtual power plant project.

But the policy prescriptions that have emerged from the REV process, and the confusing slew of acronyms that go along with them, have suffered from a key restriction: lack of data. 

Waiting for the data in REV

We wrote about the New York Public Service Commission’s big three REV rulings earlier this month, starting with the Value of Distributed Energy Resources order, which approved Phase 1 versions of its concept rates that measure DER values at specific points on the distribution grid. Our on-the-spot coverage mainly focused on how the order would affect solar projects now eligible for net metering -- a problem the PSC mainly dealt with by grandfathering in most existing customers through 2020. 

Still, with the close of Phase 1, the PSC was able to announce that it was moving on to Phase 2, with the goal “to accelerate further improvements to the Value of DER methodology” -- in other words, how each utility in the state is building the assumptions that guide its DER values. 

But New York’s utilities haven’t yet laid out how they’re going to get the real-world data on what DERs are worth at actual points on the distribution grid. California is facing similar problems, but it’s arguably further along than New York, if only because its utilities had already deployed smart meters to acquire endpoint data, and New York’s have just gotten started on the deployment process. 

And while every California investor-owned utility is working on software to collect and analyze distribution grid data for locational value, New York’s big utilities are all over the map on this foundational process. Con Ed has been able to build an integrated sensors-software-controls framework for New York City, aided by its unusual grid topology -- mostly underground rather than overhead, with existing SCADA and switching capabilities to build upon.

NYSERDA, the state’s energy research entity, is sponsoring grid edge technology demonstrations with other utilities across the state. Other utilities are in the midst of deploying advanced distribution management systems that may or may not be designed in ways that deliver the granular, “near-real-time” data that many presume will be required to meet REV’s ambitious goals. 

That leads to the main complaint from the DER industry in both New York and California: data sharing. Utilities, which aren’t yet secure in just how they’re going to make up for lost capex revenue through whatever emerges from the REV process, have plenty of reasons to slow-walk the process and seek to keep whatever data they have to themselves, citing security as a reason. 

Jumping ahead of the data on DSIPs and hosting capacity?

In the meantime, the PSC has tended to jump ahead of this data gap in announcing the next steps in the REV process. This GTM guest piece from Sara Baldwin Auck, regulatory director of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, details this problem with the PSC’s other two big orders this month -- the Distributed System Implementation Plans (DSIPs) and the Interconnection Earnings Adjustment Mechanisms.

The long saga of DSIPs is somewhat equivalent to the Distribution Resources Plans being developed by California’s big investor-owned utilities. They're meant to be “the utilities’ blueprints to determine how to plan for, manage and operate the grid with increasing penetrations of customer-sited distributed energy resources,” Baldwin Auck wrote. The state’s big investor-owned utilities submitted their first versions last year, and followed up with supplemental DSIP filings in December

But it's still unclear where the data will come from for each utility to publish circuit-level hosting capacity data on all circuits by October 2017, as the DSIP order requires. Other tools, like the online interconnection portal to assist DER developers, are dependent on this kind of data. So are any non-wires alternatives being ordered ("encouraged") for utilities to consider in replacement of good, old-fashioned capital expenditures -- substations and transformers and wires. 

This lack of specificity has bothered REV watchers for a long time, and this month’s rulings haven’t made things much clearer, IREC’s Baldwin Auck noted. Take the PSC’s guidance on hosting capacity analysis -- the utility process of collecting, analyzing and codifying data to determine, in essence, how much room each circuit, feeder or substation it has for DERs. IREC has been asking for specific use cases for these hosting capacity analyses (HCAs), but this month’s ruling didn’t include any.

Instead, the commission announced it was moving ahead with an HCA methodology that it conceded is lacking in many details, but can be managed to provide “relatively” accurate hosting capacity information to move forward. 

Scaling up New York’s solar and wind energy 

One of the big differences between California and New York is in the scale of their respective needs to manage DERs in the first place. California leads the country in rooftop PV, electric vehicles and behind-the-meter batteries, which lends an urgency to its efforts to manage them more effectively. 

New York lags pretty far behind in terms of solar, though it’s trying to catch up. The state’s big solar announcement last month was that it hit an 800 percent growth rate from 2011 to 2016, to reach 744 megawatts as of December. That represents $1.5 billion in private investment into the industry, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office -- but it’s less than one-third of the way to the 3,000 megawatts of solar PV statewide by 2023 called for in the state’s $1 billion NY-Sun initiative. 

New York also has a growing amount of wind power, but it can't match Midwest states in terms of potential -- at least, not on land. Last week, Norway's Statoil formally received its $42 million lease for the rights to develop a wind farm on an 80,000-acre offshore parcel off of Long Island. That’s big enough to accommodate some 800 megawatts' worth of wind turbines, and the first step in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s goal of 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind by the middle of next decade -- although it’s going to cost a lot more than $42 million to develop.

The latest from NYSERDA on microgrids, EVs and energy storage 

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is the main sponsor of clean energy and grid edge projects in the state, and it has had a typically busy month. This week, it announced $11 million in awards for community microgrid development, part of a long-running study-and-design phase of a process meant eventually to provide communities and critical facilities with the generation, storage and control technology they need to keep the power on during the next Superstorm Sandy. 

On the EV front, the state launched a $70 million rebate program that will provide up to $2,000 for purchase of a hybrid electric, all-electric or hydrogen fuel cell car, and pledged to deploy 450 charging stations across the state, including Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, Utica, Albany, the Hudson Valley, Westchester County, New York City and Long Island.

Finally, it’s worth noting that energy storage got a last-gasp boost from Zibelman, one of REV’s key architects, who has left the PSC to join Australia's grid operator. Zibelman inserted into the DSIP order a requirement for the state’s utilities to conduct two energy storage pilots by 2018. Departing commissioners tend to enshrine their last wishes in the form of pilot projects, as California Public Utilities Commissioner Mike Florio did with his IDER proceeding in December. 

It’s not clear, however, that pilots are what New York needs to open up its energy storage market. The state has plenty of them already underway. Instead, industry watchers are waiting for clarity on how batteries will fit into the REV formula. This month's Value of Distributed Energy Resources ruling gave some guidance that energy storage systems will be considered eligible for its new distributed energy values -- but only when paired with other eligible devices like solar. Standalone storage has been relegated to future study. 

Meanwhile, New York may be the first city to set an energy storage mandate -- 100 megawatt-hours by 2020. But it faces a fire department that is uniquely concerned about lithium-ion batteries catching fire in dense urban environments, a stance that has delayed projects in ways we haven't yet seen in California -- at least, not yet.