The interconnection process is still dragging solar down. How can states and utilities improve it?


While there are many memorable moments from the 2016 Summer Olympics, perhaps the most dominant performance came when U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky shattered the world record in the 800-meter freestyle event, beating her opponents by an astounding 12 seconds – unheard of in a sport that is necessarily timed to three decimal places. Ledecky’s superior performance relative to her peers’ draws parallels (for energy nerds, at least) to the vast differences among U.S. states’ solar policy frameworks, with Ledecky-esque states streamlining regulations so consumers can deploy solar as effortlessly as a fish – or Ledecky – zips through water.

Like swimmers who meticulously minimize all possible sources of drag to improve their performance, utilities and state regulators can streamline the interconnection process by eliminating unnecessary paperwork, delays and barriers that slow down solar installations. However, unlike today’s professional swimmers, many utilities’ interconnection processes are slower than ever, despite the availability of well-documented best practices and improved technology. A new study published by EQ Research, Comparing Utility Interconnection Timelines for Small-Scale Solar PV, 2nd Edition, has found that the amount time required to connect and activate a solar PV system in utility territories with high penetrations of solar continues to rise. This new study incorporates data collected through a survey of solar PV installers and interviews with utility interconnection staff. In total, data was collected for 62 utility territories across U.S. 20 states and Washington, D.C.

Specifically, the survey revealed that customers were forced to wait an average of 18 days in 2015 to receive approval from their utility to begin construction on a rooftop solar system, compared to 14 days in 2014. Worse yet, consumers were forced to wait an average of 45 days after construction was completed to receive utility permission to operate the system, compared to 28 days in 2014. These results follow a trend identified in the previous edition of the report, published in 2015, which found that interconnection timelines rose in 2014 compared to 2013.

One factor contributing to interconnection drag is a lack of clear, strong state policies. As the interactive map below highlights, current interconnection rules relating to pre-construction and post-construction timelines vary considerably among the 20 states and D.C. covered by the new report. Several states have no or ambiguous timeline requirements, while others only identify a specific requirement for pre-construction timelines. And because most states also lack an enforcement mechanism, utilities routinely exceed statutory or regulatory requirements, with no adverse consequences, when interconnecting a solar PV system.

Beyond the adoption of strong state policies, other solutions to address increasingly lengthy interconnection timelines are available. For starters, states and utilities can learn a thing or two from Ledecky and company. Swimmers cut down on drag by adopting the best swimsuit technologies available and perfecting every aspect of their form. Similarly, states and utilities can trim drag by adopting the best technologies possible for reducing interconnection timelines, including online application systems that communicate with existing customer databases and reduce hands-on staff time, and interactive online mapping tools that allow solar installers to identify sites where interconnection can be accomplished without time-consuming and costly upgrades. State regulators can holistically examine their interconnection processes to remove unnecessary hurdles, redundancies or ambiguity along every step of the process, and make sure all forms and requirements are publicly available. Utilities should collaborate with installers and other stakeholders to adopt best practices and solutions that benefit their customers, incorporate plans for distributed generation (DG) growth and integration in comprehensive distribution planning, and train and hire sufficient staff to handle higher volumes of interconnection applications.

Dive into our new report for more details of the mounting obstacles confronting solar customers and installers, and for detailed recommendations for improving the interconnection process to save customers, installers, and utilities time and money. Unlike competitive swimming, this is a race everyone can win.