Advertisement

Blog

Why Utilities Question the Rapid Spread of Solar

When utility customers first began adopting solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and connecting them to the grid, the number of customers deploying the systems was small, and the implication for the utilities was therefore minimal. Today, as costs come down and interest in renewable energy systems goes up, solar is spreading quickly.

Increasingly, PV system owners and vendors are quick to complain that utilities are throwing up roadblocks against interactions between solar and traditional power, especially in states like California and Hawaii, where the utilities’ relationships with renewables are not the same as they were 10 years ago. The utility, the argument goes, doesn’t want competition from renewables. In fact, some of the resistance we’re seeing from utilities today is about energy stability. Power companies have little choice but to look harder at how renewable energy affects their ability to deliver power reliably.

Dispersed energy sources and grid instability
Like the phone company, utilities are obligated to provide power to everyone in their service areas. To fulfill that duty, utilities historically managed dams, generation plants, and other power sources, along with the accompanying power transmission and distribution infrastructure. This gave them total control to match fluctuating supply and demand. Solar has become a disrupting influence in that process, particularly in areas with high levels of PV adoption.

As more solar system owners began connecting to the grid to supplement their own power generation and sell excess power back, the utility lost control over the balance between supply and demand. A neighborhood of PV owners essentially represents a distributed generation system to the utility. But if cloud cover rolls into that area and the generation system drops offline, the power plant needs to scramble to make up for the sudden shortage, and that disruption can have widespread effects.

In places where the greatest numbers of homeowners are filling their roofs with solar panels — California, Hawaii, and other sunny states — utilities have taken steps to limit interconnection. In these regions, where utilities initially expected a small portion of their subscribers to adopt renewable energy systems, a rapidly growing community of solar system owners is creating more energy than it consumes.

Creating a smarter grid
The very rules that allowed PV systems to be widely deployed have become a problem as more and more households adopt solar. With far more homes and businesses than once expected now generating energy, the utility often experiences hours of peak sun as high voltage conditions. This triggers a safety signal for grid-connected inverters to shut off. Thus, the utility faces frequent cycles of power disappearing and reappearing, creating additional problems for its customer base.

This is why utilities are pushing for a smart grid initiative. The California Energy Commission/California Public Utility Commission’s Smart Inverter Working Group is working toward new rules of grid-connected inverter operation, in which utilities gain the ability to communicate with smarter inverters to implement control strategies that improve grid stability and harness energy in predictable, reliable ways. Future-proof technology is critical to this process, and solar system manufacturers must get on board to create solutions that are less disruptive. The result will benefit not just utilities and their traditional power customers, but solar PV system owners as well.

26 comments on “Why Utilities Question the Rapid Spread of Solar

  1. amrutah
    September 28, 2014

    Brain,

       Thanks for sharing the information about the grid instability.  Never thoought that the renewables from the household utility customers could pose such a problem for the power utility companies.
      Other than developing the smart grids, what other solutions are present?

  2. amrutah
    September 28, 2014

    Brian,   Can you please share any infomration/insights regarding the smart grid?

    Like what is this technology, how will it track the peak seeding and leaching of renewable energy to and from the smart grid?

  3. eafpres
    September 28, 2014

    Hi Brian–I'd be interested in your thoughts on how real the demand fluctuation induced instability problem is.  

    A counter argument is that once a large number of small nodes distriuted over large areas are connected, the behavior becomes probabalistic and it is actually easier to manage.  This of course depends on good mathematical models and control software.  I have read of some big studies in this regard, to model the entire grid.

    Any thoughts in this area would be welcome.

  4. Myled
    September 29, 2014

    “As more solar system owners began connecting to the grid to supplement their own power generation and sell excess power back, the utility lost control over the balance between supply and demand.”

    Brian, I would like to take it in a different way. It can address the issue of power deficiency. By contributing the excess power to the grid, those who need it can be used it without any wastage. It's like a give and take policy.

  5. samicksha
    September 29, 2014

    I guess smart grid precisely limits electrical power down to the residential level, but apart from this do we any similar plan for commericial power users

  6. dassa.an
    September 30, 2014

    @samicksha: Well is there any possibility in the near future ? If so then it will be a huge boost for them

  7. chirshadblog
    September 30, 2014

    @amrulah: If possible can you elaborate on this please  ?

  8. Vishal Prajapati
    September 30, 2014

    The same scenario is happening in the India as well.

     

    The utility companies are more concerned with their reducing revenues rahter than power fluctuation and distribution. There must be ways tackle with fluctuations. Here in India there is very lengthy process for getting approval for even the net metering sans giving any credit for seeding power. Giving credits for seeding power would take like decades thanks to government and utility companies' under table connections.

  9. chirshadblog
    September 30, 2014

    @Vishal: It's a very common factor especially when politics get involved

  10. dassa.an
    September 30, 2014

    @Vishal: Yes indeed, you must try your best to keep politics out of it as much as possible. I know its impossible especially in the Asian region and the developing countries. 

  11. bjcoppa
    September 30, 2014

    Solar has not fully matured to the level forecasted 5 yrs ago from the utility power plant level. Most solar installations are still residential based on consumer incentives and loan programs. Due to the decreased price of natural gas, solar's top plant competitor, most utilities have moved in that direction instead since there is no national renewable energy portfolio standard or mandate forcing them to Go Solar.

  12. yalanand
    September 30, 2014

    Solar has not fully matured to the level forecasted 5 yrs ago from the utility power plant level. Most solar installations are still residential based on consumer incentives and loan programs.

    @analoging, I think because of slowdown in the financial market prices of oil and natural gas came down. This resulted in people opting for natural gas and oil over renewable energy like solar. I am sure in future demand for solar energy will go up.

  13. yalanand
    September 30, 2014

    As more solar system owners began connecting to the grid to supplement their own power generation and sell excess power back, the utility lost control over the balance between supply and demand.

    @Brian, thanks for the post. Do you think its good idea to create one more powerline which will just get the power from solar system owners ?

  14. yalanand
    September 30, 2014

    It can address the issue of power deficiency. By contributing the excess power to the grid, those who need it can be used it without any wastage. It's like a give and take policy.

    @Myanalog, true. It will help us address the issue of power deficiency. But it also poses challenge because it distrupts the balance between supply and demand. We need to develop smart grid to overcome this.

  15. yalanand
    September 30, 2014

    The utility companies are more concerned with their reducing revenues rahter than power fluctuation and distribution.

    @Vishal, good point. I think the utility companies should realise that power fluctuation and distribution also indirectly impacts the revenue.

  16. bjcoppa
    September 30, 2014

    First Solar is one of the top solar plant builders. They manufacture solar cells and are vertically integrated to construct their own utility level installations.

  17. bjcoppa
    September 30, 2014

    The Recovery Act stimulus program funded nearly a billion or so for a smart grid overhaul. However, the real push for smart grid tech would be the increase of renewables up to about 20% per state contributing to overall power gen. That has not happened to a degree needed to overhaul the grid for this less stable form of power.

  18. bjcoppa
    September 30, 2014

    Many incentives were lost for solar in Europe which led to a shakeout of the market and bankruptcy of many within the supply chain. The industry has improved after this market correction and business and stock prices have improved.

  19. Vishal Prajapati
    October 1, 2014

    There is no option of keeping government out of matter. As we need to take permission from Utility company before connecting solar power plant to the main grid which is valid. But they will hardly give permission to anyone. Today we are pushing the rooftop solar pv to the domestic market but there is no one to take it because people are not getting credit for what they feed. And there is no policy implemented by government for this also. But sooner or later we will definitely get the same implementated, and that will boost the market.

  20. Paul Bryson
    October 2, 2014

    Countries at the forefront of distributed solar-electric implementation are discovering a downside.  As customers draw fewer KWHours off the grid, the marginal cost for the remainder goes up.  Who pays this higher cost?  Perhaps the answer is for everyone to install solar systems and share equally; but, so far the bureaucrats answer has been to put a surcharge on the solar users.  …a complete 180 turn from subsidy to penalty – or even crazier, national level subsidy AND local penalty.

  21. Brian Faley
    October 2, 2014

    The instability problem is significant enough in some states that there have been interconnect agreements denied for new PV installations. One of the real problems contributing to instability is that under current regulations in North America, PV systems only supply Watts, not VARs. PV power factor is mandated to be unity under IEEE1547, and UL1741. All of the VARs come from the utility, and as the amount of energy from solar increase, the VAR load on the utility actually increases as well, and their distribution equipment experiences overcurrent events as a result. SmartGrid inverters can supply VARs, and coupled with energy storage, can provide voltage support as well. Both of those tend to improve the stability of the grid, as it takes the full burden of reactive power off the utility and places it closer to the point of use.

    The distributed model (over a city for instance) would tend to be more probabalistic – except for the fact that the local weather patterns tend to affect a large number of sites all at once, so the voltage fluctuations from a sudden loss of aggregate PV feed-in-current still can have destabilizing effects.

  22. Myled
    October 8, 2014

    “true. It will help us address the issue of power deficiency. But it also poses challenge because it distrupts the balance between supply and demand. We need to develop smart grid to overcome this.”

    Yalanand, smart grid is one of the solutions for balance distribution. But my opinion is energy generation/conversion has to be increased. Otherwise we may not be able to meet the demands; especially during peak hours.

  23. amrutah
    October 8, 2014

    “If possible can you elaborate on this please  ?”

    @chirshadblog: What should I elaborate?

    I think I asked a couple of questions.  Is anything confusing or you find any contradicting statements?

  24. TM123
    October 8, 2014

    Interesting, we have a similar situation here in Australia, but probably not to the same extent.

    PV power is a good idea, but it is only half of the solution. many people get into PV as their contribution to “being green”. Unfortunately, the way PV is sold is back to front. Buildings (predominantly residences) with PV contribute to some extent to the daily business peak, and for their efforts get back some “revenue” form the utility companies.

    Unfortunately, when they get home from work, they need to start consuming more power from the grid, which is most likely sourced from fossil fuels or gas – which is not so green.

    A better solution is to make a residence (not practical with businesses, though offsets some of their costs) self reliant. This means going off grid – putting in a bank of batteries that can charge in the day and supply power at night is the better solution – And a FULL one as well!

    Going Off-Grid seems to be a greener approach, to me, but governments don't want to know!

    Just saying…

  25. ue2014
    October 22, 2014

    I also totally agree with you. In developing countries like ours, government has a major role to play in such projects. Solar Power business here also is there in the market for a long period of time,but the question remains how many from the market has really taken the use of it? Unless otherwise government push these projects forward and make some policies over it, these will remain stagnant in the market for another longer period of time.

  26. johnfisher
    January 15, 2015

    With the rise in the cost of electricity it has become important to swich to an alternate source like solar energy. There are even solar funds available. For more information get quote at clean energy corp.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.