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Testing at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory enables larger amounts of renewable energy on the nation’s electric grid.
When customers install solar, their panels don’t start producing electricity right away—a utility must first assess the project’s impact on the electricity grid before it gives permission to flip the switch. These interconnection delays are a pain point for solar customers across the United States and each day solar systems sit unconnected, customers are unable to start experiencing the cost-saving benefits of solar electricity.
Since the influx of electricity generated from solar impacts the grid, engineers and utilities are cautious when approving large-scale projects or projects in areas where there’s already a lot of solar. As a result, some utilities conduct in-depth, custom impact studies before approving a solar project, which can cause costly delays to both project developers and customers.
GridUnity—formerly Qado Energy— set out to completely change the interconnection process with a cloud-connected tool that determines a solar project’s impact on the grid. From early-stage concept development in 2012 through use-case modeling and basic function testing in 2014, SunShot Initiative’s Incubator program readied GridUnity’s technology for pilot opportunities with potential customers. The resulting energy analytics platform can assess the grid impact of any distributed energy resource project, like solar or wind, at the distribution level.
To bring the platform to life, GridUnity also collaborated with researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to create realistic models of the distribution system. Using feeder data and system information from interconnection applications, the company worked with PNNL to improve the algorithms that power the platform and help utilities determine whether a solar project could interrupt normal grid operations. By creating a more efficient screening process, the platform allows utilities to shift their attention and resources to connecting larger, high-impact projects helping to speed up connection for everyone.
When a customer submits an online interconnection application, the GridUnity platform analyzes the project’s location and identifies the circuit the project will join. The platform automatically calculates the circuit’s hosting capacity and then provides the utility with an instant response regarding the suitability of the circuit for the project. If additional screening is needed, the GridUnity platform conducts automated studies that leverage advanced power flow algorithms, cloud computing, and machine learning.
The platform enables utility engineers and support personnel to focus on reviewing results rather than generating costly, time-consuming simulations. The platform can speed the impact study step from 55 days to just 60 minutes, reducing the total interconnection process from 81 days to hours—that’s 98% faster than the processes used by most utilities today.
Once a solar installation is connected to the GridUnity platform, the data can be used in the aggregate to help the utility explore grid, market, and program optimization strategies. By leveraging the GridUnity analysis capabilities, utilities can proactively analyze their grid hosting capacity to identify and publish locations where distributed energy resources will provide grid benefits, further accelerating the interconnection process.
GridUnity successfully brought the technology developed with their Sunshot Incubator award to the marketplace. Utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Hawaiian Electric Company are now customers of GridUnity and are using its platform to connect high volumes of solar projects to the grid. In these solar-dense areas, interconnection can be especially tricky and require in-depth technical screens. PG&E has been using GridUnity to connect customers to the grid since early 2016 and later that same year, the utility announced that on average it took three days to connect the 6,000 new solar customers it gets every month. The platform’s analysis and real-time reporting will help utilities in the West save tens of millions of dollars in operational costs, allowing everyone to see the returns on their solar investment much faster.
GridUnity is also working with SunShot to expand the platform’s capabilities. GridUnity’s 2016 award enables it to partner with industry leaders to create a tool that accounts for both distribution and transmission impacts on the grid, giving utilities a more holistic view of grid operations.
With more solar, storage, and other renewables added to the grid every day, utilities across the country have an opportunity to rethink outdated processes and adopt new solutions to better meet the needs of their customers. The GridUnity platform helps both utilities and customers by providing transparency throughout the interconnection process, enabling customers to connect to the grid and start realizing their solar savings faster than they can watch a television show.
Learn more about the SunShot Initiative’s technology to market projects.