Solar homes on the Helemano Military Reservation in Hawaii generate electricity that the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) integrates onto the island’s electric grid. | <em> Photo courtesy of HECO </em>

Earlier this year, the solar industry passed a key milestone: one million solar installations are connected to the nation’s electricity grid. Now, we’re looking forward to two million solar installations—a record that is expected to be reached in 2018. This large influx of solar, which is by nature a variable energy source, creates unique challenges for our country’s more than 3,000 electric utility companies.

The SunShot Initiative recognizes that while there are challenges to integrating more distributed and utility-scale solar energy onto our country’s electricity grid, grid integration also presents an opportunity to facilitate partnerships between utilities and solar companies. These partnerships have enabled a mutually beneficial feedback loop, which allows both to learn from each other to develop next-generation grid planning and operation tools. SunShot has created funding programs that allow for this type of collaboration that will shape the future of the grid.

One of the biggest hurdles for utilities is that solar power is variable and sometimes unpredictable. One hour the sky can be crystal clear, while the next hour it’s dark and cloudy, making it hard to balance electricity generation with demand. The Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) partnered with solar companies to better understand and accommodate for the solar energy being generated on Hawaii’s grid. With help from SunShot’s SUNRISE funding program, HECO collaborated with AWS Truepower to integrate solar forecasting abilities into the utility’s energy management systems (EMS). AWS Truepower provides services for all stages of the solar project development cycle. For HECO’s project, the company provided solar forecasting data that was integrated into the utility’s EMS. This collaboration showed how improved grid operations technologies would allow operators to see how much power tens of thousands of photovoltaic (PV) systems are adding to the energy supply in real time. Because Hawaii has the highest concentration of distributed PV in the country, with more than one in nine homes generating solar energy, the technology developed under this project has the potential to help utilities across the mainland to prepare for similar scenarios.

As another example, the Arizona Public Service utility partnered with GE Global Research under our High Penetration Solar Deployment funding program to develop a set of modeling and analysis tools to determine the most cost-effective strategies for adding more PV capacity to the grid. The project employed highly accurate sensor measurements and communications to enable smart controls of PV systems. Because of this work, parent company GE was able to develop new smart control capabilities for its utility-scale solar inverters. The collaboration between Arizona Public Service and GE provides utilities with a number of strategies that can be used to deal with the variability of solar generation and enhance the flexibility of distribution infrastructure.

In addition to forecasting and smart controls, energy storage and software tools help utilities ease the transition to high levels of solar. Austin Energy, a public utility in Texas, is working with a number of industry partners, including SolarEdge and Ideal Power, to develop and test integrated solar and energy storage solutions under our SHINES funding program. SolarEdge and Ideal Power both develop inverter and storage solutions for solar energy systems. In collaboration with the utility, the team is designing, developing, and installing up to three megawatts of distributed energy storage, smart solar inverters, and other technologies to optimize system performance while maintaining grid reliability. The lessons learned from this partnership have the potential to be adapted for other regions and market structures. Projects under the SHINES funding program also support the Grid Modernization Initiative, the department-wide effort to accelerate and integrate technologies in grid modernization.

These are just some of the partnerships between utility companies and solar companies that are enabled by SunShot. In order to achieve our SunShot goals, collaboration is vital to addressing the most challenging barriers facing greater solar deployment. As the industry convenes this week at Solar Power International, it presents an opportunity for solar companies to investigate potential partnership opportunities with utilities across the country. By increasing our understanding of how to integrate higher concentrations of solar onto the grid and developing tools and solutions through research and development, we learn lessons that can help us all. Learn more about our systems integration funding programs.