Innovation Ecosystem

Behind the meter solar is transforming the utility market

Peak demand for electricity was cut by some 2,000 megawatts produced by behind the meter photovoltaic arrays on homes and businesses during the early July heat wave, saving customers money and reducing emissions from coal- and oil-burning power plants

Image courtesy of ISO New England

The projected cumulative growth in New England solar power, as projected by ISO New England. The 2018 number of 2,866 megawatts includes roughly some 2,000 megawatts of behind the meter PV, which has proven to be a big factor in reducing peak demand during a recent heat wave, according to ISO New England.

Image courtesy fo ISO New England

A map showing all the behind the meter solar power in New England by town, as of Dec. 31, 2017.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/13/18
Startling new data from ISO New England, the agency that manages the region’s electric grid, showed that during a recent heat wave this summer, behind the meter photovoltaic arrays on homes and on businesses produced 2,000 megawatts of electricity, cutting peak demand, limiting the need to use dirty coal and oil burning power plants, and lowering electricity prices for consumers. Why hasn’t the news media covered this huge story?
Can the growth in behind the meter photovoltaic arrays on homes and businesses diminish the future need for new gas-fired power plants and natural gas pipelines in New England? Is there an independent agency that could conduct the economic analysis? Is there a need to develop new, stronger regulations to govern the utility industry in Rhode Island and the other New England states? Given all the new construction of buildings underway in Rhode Island, why hasn’t there been more investment in behind-the-meter photovoltaic arrays? Which political reporter will be the first to ask candidates running for Governor in 2018 a question about climate change? Will the state infrastructure bank be willing to underwrite loans for new construction of public buildings that includes a system of photovoltaic arrays, solar hot water panels, and rain barrels to collect water for landscaping?
Like the Seinfeld gag that added the phrase, “in bed,” to every Chinese fortune cookie, is there a need to begin to add the phrase, “caused by man-made climate change,” to every news story about wildfires in California, heat waves in the Northwest, deluges in Maryland, and fish kills caused by alga blooms along the Gulf Coast in Florida?
The failure to attribute the growing number of incidents of extreme weather to man-made climate change by news organizations is a big problem when it comes to acknowledging the current reality of our world.
Avoiding talking about what is happening all around us will not keep it from happening. Rhode Island prides itself on being the Ocean State. In the same way that we measure unemployment statistics and job growth as economic indicators, perhaps we need to develop new metrics for climate change impacts: number of days that beaches have been closed for swimming; number of air quality alerts issues; number of severe weather events recorded; and decline in the number of lobsters in New England waters.

PROVIDENCE – Some startling data emerged from ISO New England, the nonprofit agency that manages the power grid and wholesale electricity markets for the region, regarding the performance of what is known as behind the meter photovoltaic [PV] arrays on homes and businesses across New England.

During the recent heat wave from June 29 to July 5, these panels provided some 2,000 megawatts of electricity on a daily basis, lowering peak demand on the grid, and making the hour of peak demand occur later in the day.

Translated, by reducing peak demand on the grid and delaying the hour when peak demand was reached, “This reduces the number of hours that dirtier and more expensive peaker plants must run, avoiding fossil fuel emissions,” explained Joe LaRusso, in a thread of 22 tweets on July 20. “The result? Lower-cost electricity for all New England electric customers.”

In ISO New England’s own words, describing what happened during the heat wave from June 29 through July 5 as a result of the behind the meter PV, “With demand evading high levels, ISO New England had to call only minimally on older coal and oil resources.”

LaRusso, who tweeted from his personal account, is the Energy Efficiency and Distributed Resources Financial Manager for the City of Boston. The data he was providing analysis for was from the July 17 Newswire published by ISO New England.

What surprised LaRusso most was the percentage of regional electric demand being met by behind the meter solar panels on homes and businesses on a clear, New England summer afternoon. Before he had read the July 17 Newswire by ISO New England, LaRusso tweeted, “I’d have said 3-4 percent, and been convinced I was overestimating.”

He would have had no idea, LaRusso continued, “It could approach 10 percent or more.”

In conclusion, LaRusso tweeted: “It’s a clear [and] irrefutable fact that BTM PV has arrived,” and that “all” New England electric customers are benefiting from it.”

Further, LaRusso said: “[The] positive effects on the ISO [New England] grid will only grow as battery storage becomes ubiquitous and the amount of installed [behind the meter] PV increases.”

Debunking the myths
There is a lot to unpack in the tweets that LaRusso shared about the ISO New England analysis of how effective the “distributed” generation of behind the meter PV was in lowering peak demand and in limiting the need to fire up the dirty emissions coal and oil power plants during the early summer heat wave.

First is understanding the definition of behind the meter solar. As Erika Niedowski of the Acadia Center explained it, “Behind the meter solar is rooftop solar – solar installations [either residential or commercial] that are literally on the customer’s, not the utility’s, side of the meter,” she said. “Think of the utility meter at your house as the edge of the grid, and rooftop solar is kind of behind that.

Second, of course, is the blackout of news coverage about what occurred: zero emission, behind the meter PV is providing as much as 10 percent of the electric power needs for the New England grid, providing an effective strategy to limit carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning power plants.

At a time when the news is awash with stories about the continuing heat waves, the wildfires that continue to ravage California and other Western States, the devastating algae blooms of red tide in Florida that have resulted in tens of thousands of fish being killed, the ocean temperatures in San Diego rising to record levels, and the increase in incidents of severe weather, including four tornadoes in Massachusetts and Connecticut just north of Rhode Island, all tied by most researchers and scientists to the impacts of man-made climate change, why was there no coverage of the growing success of behind the meter PV? Good question.

In part, the lack of news coverage may be because of the effective public relations campaigns conducted by electric utilities to undercut the persuasive outcomes achieved by behind the meter PV.

“Well, you’ve probably heard the argument that BTM PV owners are free-riders: they pay no electric bill, yet they still depend on the grid when the sun goes down and they pay nothing to maintain it,” LaRusso wrote.

“Worse still, so the argument goes,” LaRusso continued, “as more and more people get BTM PV, their poorer neighbors who can’t afford it pay increasing amounts to maintain the grid that their wealthier BTM PV-owning neighbors still depend on.”

Further, LaRusso said, “It is a class warfare argument – the rich are enriching themselves still more at the expense of their poorer neighbors, and the poorer neighbors aren’t benefiting at all from the BTM PV.”

This is the argument, LaRusso said, employing sarcasm, “made by those champions of the little guy… the local distribution companies [yes, electric utilities]. The argument is made to justify imposing surcharges or minimum bills onto those, supposedly, free-riding BTM PV owners.”

But, LaRusso countered, the ISO New England behind the meter PV data demonstrated how much the home and business solar arrays were saving “all” of New England’s electric customers.

[In a clarifying tweet in a conversation with Commercial Solar Guy, @SolarinMASS, LaRusso quantified the differences between the electricity being produced from behind the meter PV and utility PV: “It looks [like] ISO-NE is reporting 2,866 MW overall, so 866 [MW] is grid-tied?”]

Cutting the need for future natural gas-fired power plants
LaRusso then posed the avoided-cost benefits analysis about what would be required in terms of new electric power generation in the absence of the 2,000 megawatts of behind the meter PV.

According to LaRusso, it would require new natural gas power stations to be built, at the cost of billions. “And then there is also the avoided cost of all the transmission and distribution infrastructure – wires – that would have otherwise had to be built, [generating] still more savings for all New England ratepayers,” he wrote.

LaRusso continued: “It’s also clear that by avoiding the construction of [gigawatts] of [natural gas] generation, [behind the meter] PV is playing a part in diminishing the need for new natural gas pipelines. And, with the cost of battery storage declining, the chief criticism of solar – its variability – will be addressed.”

Translated, the evidence of the continued rapid growth of behind the meter photovoltaic arrays on businesses and homes appears to undercut the need for both the new natural gas facility proposed by National Grid in South Providence and the new proposed natural gas-fired power plant in Burrillville.

Sowing consumer confusion
Solar by itself is not a panacea for the region’s energy needs, as energy efficiency still remains the most cost-effective way of reducing electricity consumption.

There are also numerous corporations attempting to take advantage of financial incentives to build large-scale solar installations, different from many home and business behind the meter photovoltaic arrays.

In Rhode Island, there is mounting frustration about plans to build new, utility-size solar farms in rural areas of the state, clear-cutting forested land, instead of using existing sites such as brownfields on former industrial sites and former landfills, as was done in East Providence and South Kingston.

In the absence of clear legislative guidelines at the state level – the R.I. General Assembly failed to enact such legislation during its 2018 session – and the lack of local ordinances adopted to regulate solar development, each town has been left to fend for itself in developing its own zoning guidelines.

As reported by Providence Journal reporter Alex Kuffner in an Aug. 8 story, Gov. Gina Raimondo has resisted telling localities what to do, saying: “Cities and towns all have say over their land use.

While the state’s Office of Energy Resources has created new incentives that included increased funding for solar projects on former industrial sites and raising the cap for rooftop solar, Kuffner reported that towns are still struggling to protect large land properties when they go on the market.

“Whenever a big piece of property goes on the market, I get phone calls [from solar developers],” Coventry Associate Town Planner Brian Wagner told Kuffner, despite the fact that Coventry adopted an amendment to its solar ordinance which caps lot coverage for solar projects at only 15 percent.

There are other factors that will govern the potential growth for behind the meter photovoltaic arrays on homes and businesses: the current trade war created by President Donald Trump with tariffs on China; and the attempts by utilities to limit the expansion of rooftop solar incentives.

Unsavory marketing practices
There are also the alleged reprehensible efforts by marketers targeting consumers to switch their electricity supplies to a supposed competitive contract, with consumers then finding themselves locked in higher costs for electricity and great difficulty ending the contracts.

In March of 2018, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy called for an end to competitive electricity supply markets, citing aggressive sales tactics, false promises of cheaper electric bills and the targeting of low-income, elderly, and minority residents. The move followed a report which documented that between July 2015 and June 2017, customers who switched to a competitive electric supplier paid $176.8 million more than if they had stayed with their utility company.

A report by WPRI found that predatory competitive electricity marketers had allegedly scammed Rhode Islanders out of some $28 million in the last few years. It is an issue that separates the current Democratic candidates for Lt. Governor in the 2018 Democratic primary, with incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan McKee supporting competitive electricity suppliers and challenger Rep. Aaron Regunberg calling for a halt to the competitive electricity supply markets to protect consumers.

Skating away on thin ice from the apocalypse
Despite its ongoing problems related to size and scale of solar developments, the current map of behind the meter photovoltaic arrays in New England shows the dramatic potential such installations have in cutting the demand for peak capacity, limiting carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning power plants, and lowering the cost of electricity for consumers. [See second illustration.]

How rapid has the growth of PV been in the New England electricity market? In 2010, there were only 40 megawatts; in 2018, there were 2,866 megawatts, with 2,000 megawatts from behind the meter photovoltaic arrays on businesses an homes. That is 70 times the 2010 number. [See first illustration.]

The Acadia Center analysis for how to achieve a 45 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 shows the Northeast states – all of New England and New York – would need 8,500 megawatts of distributed [not grid-scale] solar,  a lot more than that ISO projection, according to Niedowski.

Could it provide an antidote to devastation and suffering caused by the real-life impacts of man-made climate change, offering practical means to adapt to and mitigate such changes? Good question.

On Aug. 5, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy story, encompassing the entire issue, “Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet,” written by reporter Nathaniel Rich.

The story created a narrative around the failed efforts by Rafe Pomerance of Friends of the Earth and scientist James Hansen to convince the political and economic leaders of the world to adopt restrictions on carbon emissions.

The point of view of the narrative is the idea that only the experts, the smartest people in the room, can make good policy choices, invoking the myth that only the great men and great women can change history, in ConvergenceRI's opinion.

The biggest mistake, perhaps, made by Pomerance and others was exactly that kind of arrogance: failing to make the impacts of climate change a regular part of the conversation around the dinner table, at neighborhood bars and coffee shops. [See link below to the blog post, “Not Everything Is Illuminated – Or Heard.”]

Another big omission is to put Pomerance and Hansen at the center of the story. Having worked as an editor of Environmental Action magazine from 1982-1985, ConvergenceRI knew many of the players involved and found the narrative story line created by Rich to have left out big chunks of the story that were, ah, inconvenient truths.

To provide some context, Environmental Action, which was formed in 1970 by the group that coordinated the first Earth Day, was an environmental group that was focused on building political action around what was happening in communities, not just Washington, D.C. In its “Dirty Dozen” campaign, it mobilized citizens against Congressional candidates who were beholden to corporate polluters, with great electoral success. In its “Filthy Five” campaign, Environmental Action went after corporate polluters.

In March of 1984, Environmental Action magazine published a story written by Francesca Lyman, “As The World Warms,” one of the first comprehensive stories on climate change. It featured a prescient cartoon drawn by the later Peters Day of a cab driver in New York City, steering his cab through the flooded waters much like a gondola, with the caption asking: “Will New York City look like Venice in 100 years?” Who knew that the flooded streets of New York City would occur some 30 later with Hurricane Sandy? [See link below to story.]

One of the questions most suggested by reporters to ask of candidates running for office in 2018 is: Do you believe the news media is an enemy of the people?

Here is another suggestion question: Do you believe that the future of Rhode Island – and the nation – is threatened by the impacts of man-made climate change? What practical plans do you believe the state should implement to protect Rhode Islanders?

Asking such a question may go a long way to promoting more, better conversations around climate change – and not just by experts.

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