People are talking and rumors are flying about what will be the next big thing in the energy sector. In his book The Third Industrial Revolution, author Jeremy Rifkin explores the concept of how the Internet and renewable energy are merging to usher in a new age of innovation. Many of Rifkin’s concepts are already coming to fruition, such as large-scale adoption of renewables and faster communication methods to better monitor and control the grid.
Just 10 years ago, consumers did not think a camera on a cell phone was necessary or practical. Today, it is difficult to find anyone still using a stand-alone camera. This example goes to show how fast perceptions and standard practices can change when a more efficient and economical solution is presented.
Those who have been in the electric utility industry long enough probably remember a time in the not-so-distant past when power only flowed in one direction. It was a simpler time, an easier time and, some would say, a perfect time in history. Whether the electric utility likes it or not, those days are long gone. Because of the vast increase in distributed generation (DG) on the existing systems, utilities of the 21st century are forced to deal with power flowing in all directions.
What once was a beautiful blue-sky day for system operators is now a day full of added pressures, resulting in the complex coordination of thousands of moving parts that must flow as one cohesive unit to match generation to loads and maintain a stable voltage and frequency. With the large influx of distributed energy resources (DERs), utilities have to think outside the box when interconnecting these new resources to their systems. Increased levels of DER penetration have created numerous distribution issues, including voltage, protection and islanding concerns. The utility industry has realized DG is here to stay. The questions are no longer when and how but rather where and how much. National Grid is taking a holistic and imaginative approach by investigating how utilities can make DERs work for them, not against them.
Solar in the Commonwealth
Massachusetts is known for its beautiful fall foliage, picturesque Cape Cod scenery and unpredictable weather patterns. In the words of Mark Twain, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” What many do not know is Massachusetts is ranked fifth in the U.S. for solar capacity, according to the Solar Electric Power Association’s “Utility Solar Market Snapshot” report. With more than 22,000 installations, Massachusetts is quickly following the ranks of other large solar players like California and Arizona.
National Grid’s solar story began back in 2009 with its Solar Phase I program, which resulted in the development of 5 MW of utility-owned solar on underused sites and remediated brownfields. Solar Phase I helped to boost renewable energy awareness and create jobs in Massachusetts.
National Grid’s customers demand more of their energy to come from renewable resources and expect their utility to help make it happen. Because of the current procedures, this can be a lengthy process that often comes at a significant cost. National Grid identified this as a deterrent to the growth of renewable DG and looked for innovative solutions to the problem. In 2014, the utility began its second venture into solar with its Solar Phase II initiative. This program focused on the goal to construct up to 20 MW of photovoltaic (PV) generation in targeted locations with advanced inverters and enhanced communications.
By targeting deployment locations of solar generation on its system, National Grid seeks to determine the real systemic value this energy source could provide when used in a planned way. The testing of advanced inverter technology under diverse system conditions also will help National Grid and the industry gain experience and valuable information about the potential this technology can have on the future of solar integration.
Currently, codes and standards commonly used by utilities do not allow DG sites to be equipped with certain advanced functionality without special utility approval. National Grid plans to change this through the information gained from the testing and analysis at its Phase II sites. This will propagate the integration of new technologies into the grid.
By testing, developing and exploring the full capabilities of advanced inverters in diverse system conditions, the utility industry will be better informed and suited to adopt these new technologies. This will translate into improved integration processes with increased benefits for customers and the entire electric system, while maintaining the utility’s safety and reliability standards.