Solving Solar Power Growing Pains In Michigan

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Facing significant growing pains in accommodating rapidly growing distributed energy resource (DER) adoption, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) turned to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) for assistance.

As of 2018, the state of Michigan’s interconnection rules for linking DERs, namely solar power, to the electrical grid had not been updated since 2009. Enormous growth in interconnection requests from the state’s two major utilities had risen to 3 GW in 2018, which is a significant jump compared to the state’s total operating solar generation over 100 MW in previous years. The interconnection queue was long, and MPSC requested NREL’s help in updating its rules to expedite integration of solar power into the grid and plan for future increased distributed energy generation.

NREL engineers Michael Ingram and David Narang worked with MPSC over the past year and a half. A recent thank-you letter from MPSC staff to the NREL Laboratory Manager Elizabeth Doris commended Ingram and Narang for their help.

“I am so happy that Dave and Michael received well-deserved recognition for their hard, high-impact work in the state of Michigan,” Doris said. “Their expertise and ability to convey complex technical information to a wide variety of audiences enables increased mission impact.”

Working through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium (GMLC) awarded MPSC a technical assistance award in early 2019.

“Michigan’s interconnection rules for DERs had not been updated in quite a while,” Narang said. “As they were considering larger shares of distributed energy coming onto their power systems, the utilities and various stakeholders realized they needed to revise those rules.”

Using the state of Minnesota’s experience with its Distributed Energy Resources Interconnection Process as a starting reference point to update the Michigan rules, Ingram and Narang developed a two-part plan to help MPSC bring new DERs online. The first objective was to help staff understand the technical requirements of DERs based on the revised IEEE Standard 1547-2018, which provides updated technical specifications and configurations to help utilities, grid operators, and other stakeholders think through interoperability and communications details to safely integrate DERs into the electric grid.

The second objective was more of a communications issue: Ingram and Narang helped MPSC work with Michigan’s utilities to adopt a pre-application report that would provide substantive technical details about their distribution system—such as feeder locations and voltages—to help determine how new DERs would affect the grid. This was a new process to the utility companies.

“It was new for the utilities to think about and share that information with project developers,” Ingram said. “But we showed them that several other states already had this practice in place, and this changed their perspective.”

Photo of NREL researcher Michael Ingram giving a presentation at an event in Puerto Rico.
Michael Ingram travels the world providing technical assistance and educating others on the fine points of the IEEE 1547 standard.

Ingram and Narang both have previous experience working for utility companies, so their expertise was valuable to work through interconnection issues with MPSC.

Julie Baldwin, manager of MPSC’s Renewable Energy Section, stated, “The technical assistance we received from Michael and David was key to our ability to work through the complicated issues that arose during the stakeholder process we used to develop a draft set of interconnection rules. It was a pleasure to work with them because they clearly like what they do and make a great team.”

Ingram and Narang visited Michigan in May 2019 to meet with MPSC staff and have had several hour-long phone calls to discuss questions and challenges that arose.

“Our job was to help the staff build their understanding and confidence in meeting this interconnection challenge,” Ingram said. “We were ‘teaching them to fish,’ if you know the parable.”

Throughout 2020, MPSC has been working through drafts of its updated interconnection rules with stakeholder groups to finalize a draft to begin the formal rulemaking process.

MPSC also contributed to Ingram and Narang’s research, peer reviewing educational materials for the IEEE 1547 standard and directly contributing to NREL’s new “A Guide to Updating Interconnection Rules and Incorporating IEEE Standard 1547,” which is under review at DOE.

“Their contribution was helpful and rewarding for us,” Ingram said.

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