The nagging divide when we talk about solar -- and what to do about it | SEPA Skip to content

The nagging divide when we talk about solar — and what to do about it

By Bob Gibson

The Maryland Public Service Commission gathered about 20 solar and utility industry experts together — myself included — on Oct. 20 for a daylong conference looking at how the state’s energy system might evolve to better accommodate the growth of solar and other distributed resources.

Scanning the list of the speakers appearing before the commission that day, I was prepared to hear different perspectives — utility and solar. But as the day went on, the stark contrast in the language, terminology and points of reference between speakers grew to the point where it seemed people were mostly talking past rather than to each other.

It also made the rare speaker — in fact, two from solar leasing giant SolarCity — discussing models for cross-industry collaboration and growth all the more striking.

Game of tones

Part of the problem is that solar and utility people come at solar from two different directions — a “game of tones,” if you will.

Solar advocates and industry officials at the Oct. 20 meeting tended to talk in broad terms — and with an occasional air of impatience — highlighting the benefits of solar at the macro level, such as clean air and new jobs. Another common theme was the general assumption that solar would provide net, long-term monetary benefits to the electric grid.

At times sounding a more defensive note, presenters on the utility side were more focused on the micro level, zeroing in on the mechanics of grid reliability — peak demand and voltage stability — and resulting concerns about when and where solar is connected to the grid. For them, solar integration represented added costs that had to be managed.

Solar markets move fast! Keep up with SEPA’s Solar Fundamentals: Markets here.

Generally lacking were discussions of tools and means to measure the assumed benefits and costs of solar, or creative approaches to close cost gaps so that both solar providers and utilities remain whole, while allowing customers to maximize solar value.

The commission was left with a mountain of recommendations, examples and opinions — with a few rough-cut gems to be mined. Given its strong role in state-level debates on solar policy, the SolarCity presentations were particularly noteworthy, each cutting a bit across the grain of expectations.

Steps toward collaboration

Carlos Gonzalez, the company’s Senior Director of Grid Engineering Solutions, talked about an SolarCity’s ongoing partnership with Southern California Edison and the SunSpec Alliance to study the benefits of integrating distributed resources in 50 “smart homes” served by the utility. In particular, his remarks focused on the Integrated Distribution Planning tool that SolarCity introduced earlier this year. The tool reflects the willingness — and the pragmatic business need for — an entrepreneurial solar provider to take a step toward thinking and acting a bit more like a utility when it comes to grid integration.

As an example, Gonzalez addressed an issue that utility engineers are concerned about — power line hosting capacity analysis; that is, how much solar power can be fed into a given distribution line.

“We propose adding a supplemental review … that may be a screen that can help accelerate solar deployment,” he said.

Gonzalez noted that SolarCity’s thinking here is consistent with concepts about grid integration being developed by the Electric Power Research Institute, an independent research and development organization focused on the electric utility industry. He also discussed, in some detail, the distribution processes that might be modernized to manage distributed resources in new and different ways.

Track how utilities are putting solar on the grid with SEPA’s Utility Solar Database here.

What would happen if engineers from SolarCity and utilities sat down to go through these ideas point by point? It might push the utility to look at familiar issues from a different perspective, while also providing an opportunity for the solar provider to learn from the utility.

SolarCity’s Marc Kolb, Director of Policy and Electricity Markets, came to the commission representing a recently formed solar advocacy group named The Energy Freedom Coalition of America.

But Kolb previously worked for Pacific Gas and Electric, the Northern California utility that recently announced it has now interconnected 200,000 rooftop solar systems, more than any other utility in the nation. Speaking on Oct. 20, Kolb did not simply dismiss utility concerns about net energy metering (NEM) — a flashpoint between solar and utilities — but asked that NEM and all proposed rate reforms be carefully assessed before landing on any conclusions.

In addition, Kolb said that utilities should enjoy opportunities to “proactively benefit from new business models that support more distributed energy deployment,” including the ability to rate-base new infrastructure services.

Wanted: road maps to the future

Pushing the boundaries on these topics is where the Solar Electric Power Association’s (SEPA’s) 51st State Initiative comes in. The 51st State was created to encourage the open development of business models that will ensure universal access to clean, safe, reliable and affordable electricity while meeting growing customer demand for solar and other distributed options.

SEPA is currently accepting submissions of “road maps” to this future state under Phase II of the initiative. Information and guidelines are available at

We hope that participants from all parts of the electricity industry will use the 51st State to move from today’s familiar structures, currently debated at public utility commissions across the country, to visionary and doable plans for our energy future.

Bob Gibson is SEPA’s Vice President of Knowledge. He can be reached at [email protected].