Illinois’s NextGrid: What’s in it for Solar?

Illinois is poised to lead the nation toward the grid of the future. That was the message reiterated by ICC Chairman Brien Sheahan last week during a session held by E2 — Environmental Entrepreneurs. The location of the event, at 1871, Chicago’s hub for tech start-ups, underscored NextGrid’s vision to open the grid as a platform for new technologies and third-party services.

In September, Chicago hosted 500 people for the kick-off of a process to re-imagine the electric grid as a modern, interactive ecosystem — one in which the power grid serves as a platform for customers to access more options, and companies have more opportunities to provide those customers with competitive choices.

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The message was clear: Illinois is not going to sit around waiting for California or New York to show us the way. We are forging our own path, as demonstrated by the Future Energy Jobs Act, and the next phase of that work is now underway with the first roll-up-our-sleeves work group session set for this week.

Meanwhile, Illinois solar advocates and companies are deep in the midst of implementing the new renewable energy standard in Illinois, under which an estimated 3,000 MW of solar power will be deployed by 2030.

For solar advocates and the industry, what can NextGrid offer in terms of growing the market during and beyond the next decade? And how can we move from vague future visioning to concrete recommendations for meaningful improvements that benefit Illinoisans?

First, NextGrid should work toward a consensus for a distribution system planning process that engages stakeholders to work with utility planners and customers. One goal of this planning requirement should be to avoid unnecessary investment in traditional infrastructure in instances where geographically targeted deployment of solar, storage, and load-reducing resources can defer or eliminate the need. This may be best accomplished by requiring utilities to solicit bids for distributed energy resources before making system upgrades, and potentially allowing utilities to earn a return for their investment in these third-party services.

Another goal of planning would be to establish a detailed understanding of the capacity of each substation and circuit on the grid to host additional solar or other distributed resources. Both of these objectives are important for maximizing the benefits of solar power in our state.

Second, NextGrid should engage experts to set performance targets for grid resiliency. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, other extreme weather events, and ongoing cybersecurity threats, we all know that making our grid more resilient — i.e., able to withstand these events and easier to restore — is an enormous priority. But how do we measure whether our grid is resilient or not? How do we incentivize the right amount of resilience investment in the right places, and how do we target ongoing investments in solar and other distributed resources to enhance resilience? NextGrid could be a forum for answering these key questions.

Third, NextGrid should engage experts to create a methodology for valuing the benefits of solar on the grid. The new law in Illinois requires that once five percent of a utility’s peak electricity demand is represented by distributed solar customers, new solar customers will be compensated not through net metering, but rather though a methodology to assign values to the benefits that solar provides to the grid, on a locational basis. However, defining those benefits and putting a value on them will take time and should begin as soon as possible.

Fourth, NextGrid should build consensus on criteria for rate designs for customers who invest in distributed resources like solar or electric vehicles, to incentivize the optimal use of those resources to alleviate system strain and smooth out the peaks in demand. This effort should include developing a strategy for electric vehicle charging that maximizes the opportunity for renewable energy integration.

Finally, NextGrid should build consensus around a set of pilot projects that can be initiated now so that policymakers can make informed choices over the coming decade.

With focus and open collaboration, NextGrid could successfully build upon the Future Energy Jobs Act toward a clean, modern, resilient, and distributed grid in Illinois. Illinois is one of the most promising new markets for the clean energy economy. Both customers and the distributed resource industries, including solar, storage, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, and demand response providers, stand to benefit substantially by engaging in the process.

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