By - Jim Vess

National Grid’s REV demonstration project, an interview with lead project manager Jonathan Nickerson

Energize Weekly, March 1, 2017

In July 2015, National Grid launched the Fruit Belt Neighborhood Solar REV Demonstration project, which will install photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays on as many as 100 homes in a low-to-moderate-income neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y. The solar systems will be owned and operated by the utility and put power directly onto the grid rather than into the homes, while the participating customers will receive a credit on their bills for electricity their units generate, estimated at $15 to $25 a month.

Another 50 electric account holders, chosen by lottery, who were not able to receive solar arrays will also receive credits. Additional energy efficiency programs will be made available to all participants. The total project cost is estimated at nearly $3.8 million.

By siting the PV units in a single neighborhood, the Fruit Belt covers about 36 city blocks, along common lines, National Grid also aims to measure whether such a coordinated distributed energy source can deliver measurable grid efficiency benefits.

The New York State Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative, begun in 2014, is seeking to integrate new technology, renewable energy generation and business models to the state’s electricity system. Under the program, each of the state’s six large investor-owned utilities, including National Grid, were directed to come up with demonstration programs aimed at promoting REV goals.

Jonathan Nickerson, National Grid’s lead project manager, spoke to us about the Fruit Belt program. He will be giving a presentation on the project at EUCI’s 2017 New York REV Summit, which is taking place in New York City April 24 and 25.

Mark Jaffe: Some utilities have seen distributed rooftop solar as more of a headache than a resource. Why did National Grid take on this project?

Jonathan Nickerson: We took on this project for a few reasons. First, we’ve wanted to determine the impact of placing concentrated, variable generation directly into a local grid. Second, we saw an opportunity for our company. There are many low- and moderate-income communities within our service franchise territory, and we want to develop a renewable energy approach that serves both the customers and our company. This was our first project in response to the New York state REV initiative.

MJ: Low- to moderate-income households pay a higher proportion of their income for energy and have had little opportunity to access distributed renewable resources. Do you think this type of program can address these issues? Why was it important for about a third of participants to have bills in arrears?

JN: We want to determine what impact, if any, providing a monthly bill credit will have on those customers. For example, will any arrears customers continue to pay the same amount they’ve been paying, which will result in them slowly climbing out of arrears? Or will there be some customers who decrease their monthly payment by an amount equal to the bill credit? If the bill credit becomes a means for customers to climb out of arrears, National Grid will need to write off that much less as a loss. 

MJ: Utilities are used to sending out electrons, followed by sending out bills, but this project has been more of a two-way street between the community and National Grid and not it appears without some wariness on the part of customers. How did you deal with that?

JN: There was indeed apprehension among the customers, a feeling that if something sounds too good to be true, it must have a catch. We’ve managed to overcome this wariness. First, some customers who didn’t have any hesitation chose to get PV systems installed. The good thing about PV systems is that they are usually visible from the street. So that created conversation within the neighborhood. Then when the PV-system house shows a neighbor a copy of a recent electric bill, the neighbor can see the bill credit posting. Seeing is believing. So, together these helped build confidence that our offer is, indeed, real and without hidden catches. The other major tactic was to reach out to local community groups and explain what we are offering. That resulted in the community leaders developing an understanding of the program and an acceptance of the program, which built trust among members of those groups.

MJ: It turned out fewer houses than anticipated qualified, mainly due to poor roof conditions, even with National Grid willing to do up to $2,000 in repairs. Is there a lesson there about the efficacy of rooftop solar in moderate- to low-income neighborhoods?

JN: There is actually a lesson about setting enrollment expectations. We set a generation goal of 500 kilowatts (kW), and we used an average size roof space of 5 kW based on suburban homes. So, that results in needing to install systems on 100 houses. What we didn’t know was that not only would numerous houses not qualify due to roof condition, but that so many houses wouldn’t qualify due to a combination of roof orientation, shading, and slope. We also found many of the roofs offered more kW capacity greater than the 5 kW used, due primarily to the absence of dormers and other roof discontinuities.

MJ: It also appears the Fruit Belt residents weren’t the only ones challenged by the project and that even among National Grid’s staff, the idea of utility-owned distributed solar was a new concept.

JN: When most folks think of residential solar, they expect the power to be delivered directly into the house, with the excess being delivered out to the grid through a bi-directional electric meter. Delivering 100 percent of the power to the grid, as is done in this project, is unusual. Owning the equipment also meant we, as a company, were now much more in control of many aspects than we are used to. Again, this was not “business as usual.” So, it required redefining the “comfort zone” for some persons.

MJ: One of the problems with rooftop solar has been that it is disbursed, being sited wherever a homeowner was interested in having panels. In this project, you are installing solar within a concentrated geographic area, along a common electric feeder close to the load and installing controllable microinverters on each panel to wirelessly send generation data—all in an effort to explore what grid efficiency benefits this distributed energy source may offer. What will you be looking at and what benefits may there be?

JN: There are a few different benefits. First, we eliminate line loss, as we are no longer purchasing power from a generation station, then transmitting it a long distance to our point of use. That’s the easy one. The second one is a little more complicated. Each PV panel is equipped with a microinverter that can create reactive power any time the panel it serves is not producing real power at its maximum output. Each microinverter is controlled individually. We are using this controllability to improve the power factor at the homes, as well as on the distribution circuit. This will result in improved upstream power system efficiencies, and as part of this project, we will be calculating the financial benefits of those efficiencies.

MJ: Considering the project’s price tag is nearly $3.8 million for 100 installations and their upkeep over 25 years, do you think this can be a viable model for National Grid and other utilities?

JN: At first glance, it may seem like a lot of money for relatively few systems, but when you take a closer look, it is actually quite likely this will become a viable model. Approximately half the project cost goes for the PV systems themselves and thus, become part of our asset base. Second, we have the whole grid efficiency study segment. That wouldn’t have to be repeated. Also, much of the operational costs are part of the learning curve. For example, we tried many different customer engagement tactics.

If we replicate this project, we will start with the engagement tactic that worked the best. This is a pilot project, and as such, there is a significant effort placed on developing and adapting it as it moves along. Those costs wouldn’t need to be incurred in a future project. So yes, based on the experience thus far, I think we are going to be able to economically replicate this project for future financially viable community solar projects.

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