Not long ago, the interconnection of rooftop solar was mostly handled at utilities by distribution system engineers and staff.
Not anymore. By the end of 2013, over 475,000 U.S. solar installations were interconnected. And a million are expected by the end of 2017.
To drive growth, the U.S. Department of Energy wants to bring the installed cost of solar down to $1 per watt. That initiative is expected to drive permitting, inspection and interconnection (PII) soft costs from 2013s $0.17 per watt to $0.14 per watt by 2020, according to Distributed Solar Interconnection Challenges and Best Practices, a recent report from the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA).
SEPAs survey uncovered utility initiatives to lower the administrative costs of distributed generation interconnection, making the process of connecting to the grid simpler and more transparent for customers. But it also revealed that only 17 percent of utilities are able to process applications online.
What was five or ten interconnections a month is now 50, 60, 100, orfor some utilities1,000 per month, explained SEPA Research Director Mike Taylor. Utilities are starting to grapple with the fact that this may take dedicated resources.
What struck me the most was that 63 percent of utilities are already planning improvements and pro-actively streamlining their processes, noted survey co-author and SEPA Sr. Researcher Becky Campbell.
Some 86 percent of utilities are only seeing two interconnection applications per day and often not seeing business activity impacts, she said. But big utilities in states with active solar markets may be seeing 1,000 applications per year, which is 40 per day, she said. They are realizing it makes sense from a business perspective to streamline these processes, not just to accommodate the customer, but also to manage their time and costs more effectively.
Time is money: Interconnection's high cost
Even where smart meters contribute to streamlined processing, the survey found, customers often still require direct one-on-one communications, adding significant time and cost on both sides of the interconnection process.
From application submittal to utility approval now takes an average of four weeks, just as it did in 2008, SEPA found. But utilities with online processes only require an average of two weeks
Of the two-applications-per-day utilities, 41 percent process them in an average of two weeks. Only 15 percent of utilities with larger volumes manage that two week turnaround.
Three-quarters of the interconnection applications are being handled by less than 5 percent of utilities. That is likely why only 15 percent have optimized processing high numbers of interconnections in short periods of time, SEPA found.
Others are still trying to figure out how to respond and there is a range of attitudes, Taylor said. Utilities are like people. You get all kinds.
Many are only now seeing a post-recession return of sales and revenues, Taylor added. They were in cost-cutting and outsourcing mode just as solar was growing really fast. They were cutting resources just as they were seeing this new customer service need. Maybe now theyre coming out of that, taking a second look, and seeing how they can save their customers and themselves money and time.
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