PNM grid congestion locks hundreds of New Mexico residents out of solar – Albuquerque Journal

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Gary Monaghan, left, and his brother Dan Monaghan stand within the yard of their West Side home. The Monaghans will not be in a position to have solar at their home as a result of they stay in a “red zone,” the place solar interconnection is presently unavailable. Meanwhile, the home subsequent door — seen over the wall — does have panels put in. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

When Dan and Gary Monaghan moved into their expansive West Side home in September 2020, the brothers deliberate to right away go solar.

Gary, who moved from Chicago to affix his brother in Albuquerque, even purchased an electrical automobile in anticipation.

They instantly signed up with Tesla to put in solar panels on their 3,294-square-foot home, simply north of the petroglyphs, together with a Tesla “Powerwall” battery storage system to increase availability of their self-generated electrical energy across the clock.

And they purchased a half dozen electrical house heaters as nicely to maintain their four-bedroom, four-bath home heat in winter to scale back pure fuel consumption.

But a number of months after transferring in, Public Service Company of New Mexico despatched them a letter saying the utility’s substation electric-feeder line into their neighborhood was “full,” which means neither the Monaghans — nor any of their neighbors within the 138-home group — might join new solar programs to the grid.

“The idea from the start was to get solar, so we chose a home in a bright, sunny neighborhood with a south-facing roof,” Dan instructed the Journal. “It was like a punch in the face when they said we can’t have solar.”

The Monaghans’ home is only one amongst hundreds of New Mexico residences and companies that are actually locked out of the marketplace for putting in particular person solar programs as a result of PNM feeder strains into many native communities are at capability, in keeping with the utility. That means, until a enterprise or house owner needs to utterly disconnect from the grid — which means totally eradicating the PNM meter to go it on their very own — no one within the congested communities can get solar.

A complete of 19 communities in PNM’s service territory — nearly all of them conglomerated on the town’s West Side and in Rio Rancho — are actually labeled as “red zones” the place solar interconnection is presently unavailable, in keeping with PNM. That represents practically 4% of all of the utility’s feeder strains, which interprets to about 4% of PNM’s complete buyer base.

To ensure, that’s nonetheless a reasonably small variety of the roughly 530,000 clients presently served by PNM. And thus far, virtually all properties and companies which have truly utilized for solar interconnections throughout PNM’s service territory have been permitted for hook ups, stated Omni Warner, director of PNM’s distribution engineering and grid modernization groups.

“Less than 1% of functions by clients are on ‘hold status,’” Warner told the Journal. “For 99% of our customers who have requested an interconnection, we’ve allowed it.”

But 4% of PNM’s complete buyer base equals about 22,000 properties and companies. And whereas the corporate rejection charge is lower than 1% of complete functions, many individuals within the crimson zones who do need solar are apparently simply opting to not apply since they’ll solely be rejected.

In the Monaghans’ neighborhood, for instance — the place solely two properties managed to get solar earlier than PNM decided that the native feeder line was at capability — residents have maintained an ongoing dialogue via Facebook.

“Through our community Facebook group, we’ve had long discussions with many neighbors who have tried to get solar,” Dan stated. “Many just haven’t applied because they know it’s not available. There’s a real sense of dismay.”

Growing downside

The state Public Regulation Commission is now working to resolve, or no less than alleviate, the state of affairs by growing new requirements and rules that might assist PNM and different native utilities to unencumber extra capability on their feeder strains.

A home with solar panels stands subsequent to the home belonging to brothers Gary and Dan Monaghan. The Monaghans selected a home with a south-facing roof in a vibrant, sunny West Side neighborhood with a purpose to set up solar panels — however capability points with PNM feeder strains of their neighborhood means solar is presently unavailable to them. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Modern applied sciences to manage the back-and-forth stream of present between utilities and particular person solar programs might assist develop the quantity of customer-based era that may safely be built-in on a single line, in keeping with specialists concerned within the PRC course of. In addition, up to date calculations on how a lot solar can truly be linked earlier than a distribution system is crammed up might additionally imply extra capability presently exists on congested strains than beforehand thought by PNM and different utilities.

But the PRC course of, which started in early 2021, gained’t conclude till later this yr. And even then, the adoption of recent guidelines and advanced-control applied sciences will take time to implement, in all probability years.

In addition, whereas new rules and know-how will assist alleviate the present state of affairs, a complete resolution for congested feeder strains requires vital upgrades to the grid. And that, in flip, raises questions on who can pay for these investments, which might value tens, if not tons of, of hundreds of thousands of {dollars}.

In the meantime, the issue will probably develop worse, given as we speak’s quickly increasing demand for customer-cited solar, or “distributed generation,” in New Mexico and elsewhere, stated Jim DesJardins, government director of the New Mexico Renewable Energy Industry Association, which is taking part within the PRC’s new rule-making course of.

“If the new rules are approved this year and take effect next January, it will still take at least a couple of years to implement them and change things, especially because this is kind of new territory for everybody,” DesJardins instructed the Journal. “The problem will likely get worse before it gets better.”

Last yr alone, grid-interconnection functions to put in particular person rooftop programs round New Mexico elevated by about 25%, with some 10,000 requests acquired by native utilities, stated Arthur O’Donnell, a veteran business knowledgeable and U.S. Department of Energy Fellow who’s aiding the PRC within the rule-making course of.

PNM alone, which already had practically 26,000 interconnected buyer programs on its grid by year-end 2020, acquired greater than 6,000 new functions final yr.

“We’re seeing more applications than ever,” O’Donnell instructed the Journal. “We’re especially seeing large increases in small residential rooftop solar installations.”

Community solar

The imminent addition of “community solar” initiatives throughout the state might additionally considerably improve the necessity for extra feeder-line interconnection capability.

The State Legislature handed a regulation in 2021 to start permitting third-party builders to construct group solar installations, whereby massive, central solar amenities of as much as 5 megawatts will present solar era to utility electrical grids. Homes and companies that need to take part pays a payment to the builders to change into undertaking members, entitling them to obtain credit score on their utility payments for his or her portion of the solar electrical energy provided to the grid.

That permits individuals who hire properties or residences — notably lower-income households who can’t afford a person solar system — to entry solar electrical energy. Businesses and different institutional shoppers that don’t have the rooftop capability to put in a system may also be part of.

The PRC finalized a brand new rule on April 1 to information the state’s adoption of group solar, which can probably start after the brand new interconnection guidelines and requirements are permitted.

But developer curiosity already far outweighs capability. The regulation outlined a gradual deployment course of to evaluate how nicely group solar deployment works in New Mexico, limiting the entire variety of initiatives throughout the state to a cumulative cap of 200 megawatts via year-end 2024. At that point, the PRC will re-evaluate this system after which set annual caps for brand new initiatives going ahead.

But in 2021, builders sought utility-interconnections for 15 occasions extra group solar than is presently allowed, O’Donnell stated.

“The state’s three investor-owned utilities got like 900 requests for about 2,500 MW of community solar systems,” he stated. “Utility engineers are completely overwhelmed.”

Nationwide downside

The problem of congested distribution strains stifling custom-owned solar deployment just isn’t distinctive to New Mexico. The downside first appeared greater than a decade in the past in Hawaii and California, which lead all different states within the quantity of distributed era put in on their grids.

But new business research — plus the event of superior applied sciences to manage present on feeder strains — helped alleviate congestion in these two states and others. The business discovered that the normal utility “rule of thumb” for solar-connection capability on any particular person line is extraordinarily conservative, which means much more interconnection is feasible on current strains that had been beforehand closed off to extra solar era, O’Donnell stated.

Historically, utilities restricted the entire quantity of distributed era on any given feeder line to a most of 15% of all present going backwards and forwards between the utility and native clients, which means that when the road feeding into a particular group reached the 15% cap, most utilities would mechanically stop any new solar additions in these areas.

But the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, or IREC — a nonprofit that advocates for speedy adoption of fresh energy and energy effectivity know-how — has constructed new requirements for interconnection capability based mostly on in depth analysis, together with detailed research by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. Under the brand new requirements — now confirmed correct via deployment in Hawaii and elsewhere — most feeder strains are thought-about able to dealing with as much as a 30% most for customer-sited era, and probably far more in some locations.

In addition, the widespread set up of “smart inverters,” plus battery storage programs, can add an enormous quantity of extra capability.

Smart inverters, batteries

Inverters are used on all programs to transform direct present, or DC, to alternating present, or AC, for rooftop solar programs to principally step down the power depth coming from the solar to ranges that can be utilized to run family home equipment. And, when solar programs generate extra electrical energy past what the person buyer can use, the inverters re-convert the present to DC to move it again to utilities over feeder strains for common consumption on the grid.

Apart from the DC/AC conversion, inverters till lately had been usually additionally programmed to close down a solar system if there may be an electrical outage on the grid to keep away from questions of safety as utilities work to restore issues and get their electrical programs again on-line.

But about 5 years in the past, producers upgraded most inverters into “smart” know-how that may management the extent of voltage being fed into feeder strains, reasonably than simply shut programs down. That means if the quantity of voltage being generated by a person system spikes, the sensible inverter can mechanically decrease the present ranges fed into feeder strains, or alternatively, they will improve the voltage when too little electrical energy is generated.

The new inverters may also redirect present into battery storage programs reasonably than feeder strains, permitting clients to cost up batteries to make use of the electrical energy at nighttime, or to feed that saved electrical energy again to the grid as wanted.

And battery deployment itself can present an enormous enhance for distributed era normally, straight controlling the quantity of present going backwards and forwards on feeder strains to supply electrical energy particularly when it’s wanted.

But to combine these new applied sciences, plus the upgraded requirements on how a lot distributed era feeder strains can tolerate earlier than reaching capability, new guidelines and rules have to be adopted by states to information utility interconnections. Such regulatory revisions have already been adopted in no less than 4 states. And IREC is now aiding regulators with new rule-making processes in additional than half a dozen different states, together with New Mexico.

Year-long dialogue

The PRC held workshops and conferences all through 2021 with dozens of native utility representatives, business specialists, and clear energy corporations and advocates to think about adopting the brand new requirements and know-how into New Mexico’s interconnection guidelines, which haven’t been up to date since 2008.

“Over 140 people participated in the process at one point or another, with 40 people at least attending meetings every other week,” PRC Commissioner Cynthia Hall instructed the Journal.

That culminated in a draft with proposed adjustments to the state’s present interconnection guidelines, which the total PRC permitted in late March as the muse for a proper rule-making course of that’s now underway to formally undertake an up to date set of rules, Hall stated.

That course of will take into account a broad vary of points, comparable to IREC’s fashionable requirements for calculating feeder-line capability, tips for integrating sensible inverters and battery storage into utility grids, streamlined processes by utilities to evaluation and approve interconnection functions, and dispute decision between utilities and clean-energy builders and clients when reviewing interconnection requests.

“The process will bring New Mexico’s interconnection rule into the 21st century, with more streamlined review of smaller systems and fast-track review of larger ones based on new standards that will allow utilities to not worry about adding more capacity,” O’Donnell stated.

DesJardins stated that’s important as extra owners, companies and clear energy builders search to put in distributed era.

“Distribution lines are like a highway,” DesJardins stated. “We install solar at the customer level and then we connect those systems to distribution lines, but if the circuit is closed, it’s like a highway being shut down. That’s a huge issue that urgently necessitates making the highway bigger, because people are only just starting to get on.”

Collaborative, however controversial

The rule-making, nevertheless, just isn’t with out controversy, with many factors of rivalry between utilities and clean-energy builders and advocates.

Renewable business representatives are notably gung-ho about new tips for sensible inverters and battery storage to alleviate congestion on utility distribution programs, plus adoption of recent IREC requirements to control most capability on feeder strains.

“Those things will rapidly give us more capacity to install more solar,” DesJardins stated. “The current standards and requirements are outdated and arbitrary, and they don’t account for modern technology.”

Taiyoko Sadewic, founder and CEO of Santa Fe-based set up agency Positive Solar, stated states like Hawaii and California have confirmed that IREC requirements and sensible inverters work.

“They’re the canaries in the coal mine,” Sadewic instructed the Journal. “They’re showing us the way for the future in New Mexico as grid circuits fill up … As an industry, we’re working on local pilot projects with smart inverters to move that technology forward here.”

Utilities are open to exploring these issues, however they’re understandably extra cautious.

Too a lot present on feeder strains can harm transformers, conductors and different elements on distribution programs as a result of the present causes warmth that may result in thermal degradation over time, stated Omni Warner of PNM.

“As a utility, we have a commitment to serve all customers with reliable, safe power,” he stated. “We have operating constraints where the voltage goes too high or low on those lines because of excess photovoltaic generation on the feeders.”

Still, if sensible inverters will be proven efficient domestically, it might supply some options to presently congested communities, Warner added.

“Smart inverters could help resolve some of the at-capacity, closed circuits that we now have,” Warner stated. “They can provide value to the overall grid, and as a utility, we’re supportive of the concept of smart inverters.”

PNM additionally believes battery storage can probably present vital congestion aid, comparable to putting batteries close to distribution substations, or on bigger solar programs feeding into the grid, to supply centralized management of present in congested communities, Warner stated.

But particular person, customer-owned batteries could also be much less reasonable. For one factor, they’re very costly, considerably elevating prices for owners and companies that select to go solar. In addition, utilities will want extra infrastructure, comparable to sensible meters put in on properties and companies, to totally monitor how these programs are working in actual time to adequately handle the grid as extra distributed era comes on-line.

Cost sharing

And hanging over the whole lot are the prices for grid upgrades to put in and handle issues like batteries and different know-how.

“We’d like to make some of these improvements, but it’s a matter of when, how and who pays for it,” Warner stated.

If distribution-level investments profit properties and companies that need to go solar with out offering any vital positive factors for non-solar clients, then who pays for upgrades turns into a equity problem, stated PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval.

“It’s not fair for one group to subsidize another group of customers,” Sandoval instructed the Journal. “We can’t expect everyone to foot the bill for a few, but that’s out of our hands. It’s a public policy question on who pays for all of this that the PRC must decide on.”

That’s notably true in congested communities the place, however sensible meters and new IREC requirements on capability, distribution-system investments will nonetheless be essential. Such upgrades, when merited, can value anyplace from $1 million to $10 million, in keeping with PNM.

A radical evaluation of how prices are shared is important within the rule-making course of. That’s as a result of present rules on interconnection name for any particular person house owner, enterprise or developer who requests to attach up distributed era to the grid in a congested group should now bear all the prices for any upgrades wanted to maneuver ahead.

“Cost causation is currently triggered by whoever is the last customer to request an interconnection, and that’s very unfair,” DesJardins stated. “Everyone who follows on with interconnection then gets a free ride because the needed distribution upgrades were paid for by just one customer or business.”

Last yr’s dialogue workshops produced quite a few potential choices on cost-sharing, comparable to distributing the price of upgrades amongst all builders and clients who profit. But no consensus was reached on something particularly.

“We haven’t yet zoned in on how it will look, but we do want some form of cost-sharing included, with a serious discussion about it in the rule-making,” DesJardins stated.

Other points

Disagreements additionally exist over quite a few less-technical points, comparable to streamlining utility evaluation of interconnection functions and necessities for utilities to supply extra public perception into grid infrastructure.

More transparency — together with a doable mandate for utilities to supply common reviews on grid congestion — may help clear energy builders make higher choices on the place to construct solar initiatives to keep away from issues earlier than they start. But that may probably require extra engineers and technicians to conduct detailed system critiques, elevating utility prices.

And as for streamlining the interconnection course of, clear energy advocates are in search of strict timelines for utility assessments that may result in nearly speedy approvals for small rooftop programs, and simply weeks, reasonably than months, to complete functions for bigger programs, stated Adam Harper, founder and CEO of Albuquerque-based set up agency OE Solar.

“Under those new rules, utilities would need to process all applications in under 30 days,” Harper instructed the Journal. “Today, more complicated projects basically get mothballed with no end dates, and that would come to an end. If something takes longer, the burden would be on the utilities to explain why.”

Despite particular disagreements, nevertheless, the utilities say they’re dedicated to working with all individuals within the rule-making course of to design a contemporary regulatory framework for interconnection going ahead, stated Anthony Bueno, PNM director of buyer options and operations.

“We’re working collaboratively with clean energy developers, PRC folks and other utilities to come up with solutions together,” Bueno instructed the Journal. “It’s a good effort and it needs to happen to help utilities and our customers. We’re fully committed to it.”

But whereas welcome information for owners and companies situated in presently congested communities, no short-term aid is probably going for folks just like the Monaghan brothers and their neighbors, as a result of it might take years to implement options even after new guidelines are permitted. And within the meantime, a lot of these locked out of the solar market are rising a bit determined.

Gary Monaghan recharges his electrical automobile within the storage of his West Side home on April 6. Monaghan and his brother purchased the electrical automobile and their West Side home in anticipation of putting in solar panels and accessing renewable energy, however later discovered they stay in a solar “red zone,” the place PNM gained’t enable additional solar hook-ups due to feeder line capability points. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

With federal tax incentives for solar investments scheduled to ratchet down subsequent yr after which disappear in 2025, the Monaghans are afraid they gained’t get an interconnection software permitted by PNM till after the tax breaks are gone, making their solar aspirations unaffordable.

“This is New Mexico, with sunshine all over, and yet we can’t access it,” Gary Monaghan instructed the Journal. “We’re looking now at moving somewhere else to tap into renewable energy, because that’s a big part of why we bought this house in the first place.”

Are you in a crimson zone?

Visit www.pnm.com/solar and click on on Get Started Now with a purpose to entry Public Service Company of New Mexico’s Solar Capacity Map, which reveals communities that can’t presently join solar panels to the grid.

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