Leveraging Real-Time System Visibility to Integrate Solar

Distributed solar is being installed at an exponential rate across the U.S. with an average annual growth rate of 42%. Despite this massive growth and the crucial role distributed solar plays in a clean energy future, most solar installations are not yet integrated into real-time grid operations. To manage a decarbonized grid, utilities will need real-time visibility and control of all operational assets, including distributed solar, and eventually electric vehicles and other distributed energy resources (DERs).

Our team, in partnership with National Grid, Standard Solar, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and with funding from the New York State Energy & Research Development Authority (NYSERDA), is proving that this real-time visibility and control of solar assets is both feasible and scalable. We are using our real-time distributed software to evaluate a variety of smart inverter control strategies and understand their impact on a variety of factors, including grid support, solar hosting capacity, and energy consumption.

But getting the technology right is only one aspect of a scalable solution. To ensure that the model will be replicable across the country, the team is also developing a benefit-cost analysis (BCA) to understand the impact of this solution on utility and solar developer business models.

At a recent Decarbonization Summit, hosted by Grid Forward, representatives from each organization involved in the project came together to discuss why we need collaboration among technology companies, DER companies, utilities, and labs and what this project might mean for the future of energy.

Here are some of the key insights.

This solution benefits both utilities and solar developers.

National Grid is already using Utilidata’s real-time volt/VAR optimization (VVO) software to optimize power flow, save energy, and improve grid operations.

By integrating smart inverter control with our VVO, we will be able to increase hosting capacity, which creates immense value for both the solar developer and the utility. Solar developers will be able to install more solar farms, while the utility will gain better control over their DERs and be able to meet their state-mandated renewable energy targets and electrification goals.

Through a series of modeled simulations and tests in NREL’s lab setting, we are identifying the best combination of smart inverter control schemes to integrate solar inverters into VVO. This requires leveraging real-time data from both National Grid and Standard Solar, plus sophisticated algorithms from NREL to optimize the application of Utilidata’s VVO. The solution is first being deployed at Standard Solar’s Sugar Hill Solar Farm.

“As a developer, we’re always looking for where we’re going to do the next project, how we are going to increase penetration of solar on the grid, how we’re going to do it at the lowest cost possible to meet state renewable portfolio standards; both to enable us to rise to the occasion to meet the additional electrification requirements, and to be able to do it all in a way that is going to work for the grid.”

CJ Colavito, Vice President of Engineering at Standard Solar
Collaboration is key.

The project requires close collaboration between all entities involved. For example, Standard Solar and National Grid are coordinating to provide data and permissions, informing on various protocols, providing insight into their business cases and costs, and operating the grid and solar farm itself. Utilidata and NREL are coordinating on software simulation set-up, modeling, and analysis of data.

This inter-organizational collaboration is crucial for the project’s ultimate success, as well as for any future projects across the industry.

“We need more collaborations like this to help New York, or any state or utility, reach their goal and modernize. We’ve had tremendous success in silos of developing innovation in terms of grid operations, solar, customer engagement, demand response, etc. Out of each of those have come software packages or modules that are too disparate right now to really meet the needs of the next decade. … Bringing together all of these perspectives is what we need to see to overcome this [disparity].”

Marissa Hummon, Utilidata Chief Technology Officer
The right business model is essential.

Deploying the right control solution at scale will still require the right business model, incentives, and regulatory support. By quantifying key benefits, including increased hosting capacity, an improved interconnection process, maximized operational value, and enabling FERC 2222, we will be able to demonstrate that this solution:

  • Creates revenue
  • Benefits the grid and customers
  • Meets regulatory renewable energy and electrification demands

As part of the project, we are collaboratively creating a business case based on modeling results, and then gathering a wide range of stakeholder feedback to validate that the methods used are repeatable across the industry. With a rapidly changing grid and increasing regulatory mandates around clean energy, this solution is more pertinent than ever.

“Distribution planning has really changed, from developers who need to now think about how their systems are operating and what’s the risk in the next 10-20 years in how they’re going to be operated, to the utility itself and technology providers. We cannot look at a technology in silo anymore. …With FERC Order 2222, the distribution system is going to be responding to some market and bulk power system needs. … More and more we’re going to need some control on the distribution system to accommodate things that we don’t know that are going to come.”

Julieta Giraldez, Senior Engineer from NREL
The goal is a scalable solution for the entire industry.

Going forward, the goal is to develop this scalable business model in a way that it can be replicated on both more circuits in National Grid’s territory, and beyond to more utilities across the United States.

“Whenever we do pilot projects, we do not do them as one-offs, we do them to scale… as we’re going forward we’re thinking about what steps we’re taking in this project that are going to help us take this to scale.”

David Lovelady, Director of Distributed System Operations at National Grid

Ultimately, this project is about transforming the way solar farms integrate with the grid, so that utilities can achieve even the most ambitious goals for a decarbonized future.