Stuck in the Queue, what’s a customer to do?

Many thanks to Utility Drive for documenting the wasteful and unfair crisis may of us have seen festering for years: getting customers’ rooftop solar hooked up to the grid.

You can check it out here.

The report shows that the length of time customers spend waiting to get their systems hooked up is growing, by a lot. Think that’s not a big deal? How about this example:

“A hypothetical customer in Connecticut who installs a 7 kW system would be deprived of more than $150 in electricity generation for every month that interconnection is delayed,” the paper reports. “Multiplied over many individual systems, the cumulative costs are considerable.”

And it’s not just money. The customer is losing $150 a month, but the that’s also more carbon going into the atmosphere, creating global warming pollution that would not exist had the system been hooked up. It also undermines investment in solar. How can you take out a loan that you need to pay back right away with the savings from your solar system if your system is going to sit there inactive for who knows how long?

The report blames three culprits for the growing delays: 1. There are a lot more residential applications, 2. Utilities can’t handle the increased number of applications, and 3. There are more applications for specific parts of distribution systems that already have a lot of distributed solar on them.

Is it me, or are these three reasons just really parts of one reason?

In my experience, there are other much more fundamental challenges to consider than workflow and project management.

First, the utility business model. If you were selling widgets, and then your customers started making their own widgets, and then you had to buy their excess widgets, how would you feel about your long-term economic prospects? Yes, I know we have decoupling and supply and delivery are separate, but delivery charges are based on the volume a customer buys, so less volume, less money spent on delivery. Most anyone reading this knows all about this so-called “utility death spiral,” but let’s focus just on the lack motivation to quickly approve and interconnect residential solar.  Utilities’ earnings are, for now, not improved by interconnecting the projects in their queues in a timely manner. Other than to avoid a massive lapse in customer satisfaction, why would they do it at all?

Second, the utility risk profile. Utilities were born and bread to be risk adverse. Low risk, low reward. Except when interest rates are miniscule, and suddenly utilities look like low risk, high reward. But in any case, utility employees in charge of keeping their circuits and substations humming were trained not to do anything whatsoever that might mess that up. Now, they’re boomers close to retirement, and we’re telling them it’s time to give the green light to hook up a bunch of variable resources? But they’re still on the hook if everything doesn’t function perfectly? Yes, we know there are a lot of cool new tools to manage this, which brings me to…

Third, even though there are amazing technologies available, like using reactive power, energy storage, big data, demand response, there’s little motivation for a utility try new technology to allow significant penetration, because of reasons 1 and 2.

As many States, especially New York, know, it’s time to reinvent the utility business model, so utilities are rewarded for doing what they need to do to facilitate the clean energy revolution and doing it really well. 

Otherwise, how can we really expect them to change?