Developers say NH’s process to connect power to the grid is slowing down clean energy projects

According to Eversource’s latest report, there are about 470 megawatts of distributed energy projects, overwhelmingly solar, in line for interconnection. If those projects were built, they would more than double the amount of solar power New Hampshire has today.

According to Eversource’s latest report, there are about 470 megawatts of distributed energy projects, overwhelmingly solar, in line for interconnection. If those projects were built, they would more than double the amount of solar power New Hampshire has today. DAN TUOHY—NHPR

By MARA HOPLAMAZIAN

New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 06-10-2024 1:00 PM

New Hampshire trails other New England states in building out renewable energy sources. But solar projects are in development all across the state. More than a hundred have cleared the first hurdle of the development process: finding a location. But they’ve been stuck for several months, waiting in line for something called an interconnection study.

Before any energy project can be built, utilities study how it will fit into the power system as a whole and whether they will need to upgrade the poles, wires, substations and transformers that deliver the new electricity to homes and businesses to handle more power.

Solar developers say the queue for those studies at Eversource, the state’s largest utility company, has become something like I-93 on a holiday weekend: slow and frustrating.

According to Eversource’s latest report, there are about 470 megawatts of distributed energy projects, overwhelmingly solar, in line for interconnection. If those projects were built, they would more than double the amount of solar power New Hampshire has today.

Three developers - Rewild Renewables, Lodestar Energy and Kearsarge Solar - have filed a complaint with New Hampshire’s Department of Energy, alleging Eversource has delayed their projects, violated state laws around supporting small-scale energy projects, and prevented municipalities from saving money on energy and cutting greenhouse gasses.

In the complaint, filed in March, the companies said they had submitted interconnection applications for 28 projects over the course of 19 months. None of those projects had received an interconnection agreement at the time the complaint was filed. For 20 of the projects, the companies said, Eversource had not yet moved past deeming their applications complete. According to a filing from Eversource in May, one now has an interconnection agreement.

“There is no engineering or electrical reason for them being held up,” said Matthew Doubleday, the director of interconnection at Rewild Renewables. “They could move forward. But for some reason, whether it’s resources or something else, they’re not proceeding.”

Doubleday’s company, which is based in New Hampshire and primarily works on community solar projects, has ten projects in Eversource’s queue. Two of them, submitted in February and June of last year, are the only projects in line on a particular substation, meaning they should be first in line, according to Doubleday. Eversource hasn’t studied either yet, he said.

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“Community solar projects everywhere are facing interconnection hurdles. What's unique about New Hampshire is this is the only state right now where the hurdle that we're facing is actually getting into study,” Doubleday said.

Eversource has defended itself against the companies’ assertions, asking New Hampshire’s Department of Energy to dismiss their complaint.

“Eversource is doing everything within its capabilities to process the project Applications as expeditiously as possible and meeting all legal and regulatory requirements while doing so,” the company wrote in response to the complaint.

The company also noted in their response that the solar developers have changed the sizes of some projects and have withdrawn others, which has slowed the process. In response to developers’ complaints the company said longer wait times are “not unheard of for large project proposals that are materially changed, sometimes multiple times by the applicant, nor is it necessarily unreasonable given the factors described in this response.”

An influx of interest

Utilities in New Hampshire have seen historic increases in interconnection applications.

Alec O’Meara, a spokesperson for Unitil, said between 2019 and 2021, the company was processing about 200 applications a year, on the high end. In 2023, they processed 900. That company is managing the extra applications by contracting third-party staff during busy times and aiming to move more of the application process online.

Colin Manning, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Electric Co-Op, said they’ve seen applications more than double over the past five years, and they’ve tried to streamline the process and educate members about what needs to be included in applications.

Liberty Utilities declined to comment on their interconnection queue.

At Eversource, the company went from processing 20 applications a week to receiving about 100, sometimes more than 200, over the course of the past five years, according to spokesperson William Hinkle.

The utility’s engineering department used to handle interconnection as part of its broader work. Now, three people work full-time and one person works part-time on “customer care,” which handles interconnection applications, with the help of staff on other teams. Eversource also says they’ve brought on contractors, updated their software systems and updated training for staff.

Hinkle said 95% of interconnection applications – mainly smaller projects – should be approved “in a matter of days.”

Medium-sized projects are using a “fast-tracked” process, which Hinkle said takes roughly 60 to 90 days. It’s larger projects that are seeing the long wait times.

Doubleday says he acknowledges Eversource is dealing with an increase in their interconnection workload.

“But that’s a reality everywhere, across many states,” he said. “It's been nearly two years since they've seen that uptick, and the queue has only grown. We haven't seen much improvements in projects moving through the queue in a way that is industry standard.”

ReWild Renewables has projects with Eversource in Massachusetts, and Doubleday says they haven’t seen the same level of delay there, particularly for projects that are first in line on their substation. Utilities in Maine, which has similar electric grid considerations to New Hampshire, are also moving more quickly, according to Doubleday.

When asked about the average length of time to process interconnection applications in the three states it works in, Eversource said timelines are fairly consistent across Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Hinkle noted that projects often have too many variables to provide an average timeframe, and for larger projects the timing could be controlled by the region’s grid operator.

Barriers to interconnection

Although developers say they’re experiencing particularly difficult interconnection issues in New Hampshire, the process of hooking new energy sources up to the grid is a nationwide issue, said Sam Evans-Brown, the director of Clean Energy New Hampshire.

The process is now emerging “as the primary impediment” to moving forward with the clean energy transition, he said.

Across the U.S., states and grid operators are handling interconnection differently as many struggle with the jump in applications and work to develop a more efficient process. How quickly that happens could influence the reductions in climate-warming emissions the country is able to make in the coming years.

In Texas, which led the country in wind power added and came in second for solar added over the last decade, the grid operator uses an approach called “connect and manage.” Developers can take on the risk of having their power output curtailed if the grid is congested, instead of studying and building out broader upgrades ahead of projects.

In some states, utilities have begun studying projects in groups, so that developers can allocate the costs of upgrades among multiple projects. Eversource says that method is underway in Massachusetts, and just starting to get off the ground in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire is one of 17 states that currently has a “D” grade from Freeing the Grid, an initiative that rates interconnection procedures across the country run by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and Vote Solar. Each other New England state has a “C”. New Mexico is the only “A” state.

Freeing the Grid says New Hampshire does not have any of the criteria they consider for grading. That includes having specified timetables for interconnection reviews, sharing data, and having specific processes for resolving disputes. What’s saving New Hampshire from an “F” grade is that it has statewide interconnection procedures at all.

“In New Hampshire, we just have a paradigm under which the utilities get to decide the timetable,” said Evans-Brown. “They get to decide the standards. They get to decide down to what equipment you're going to install at the point of interconnection.”

And utilities, he said, aren’t very incentivized to hasten the interconnection process. They aren’t allowed to own facilities that generate energy, except for a small exception. The companies generally make a profit by building infrastructure. Doing interconnection studies doesn’t directly make money. So advocates argue that utilities are not motivated – at least, not by profit – to improve interconnection processes.

“In fact, it costs them money to hire staff to do more of these studies. And so they have an active interest in trying to do it as cheaply as possible,” Evans-Brown said.

Clean Energy New Hampshire has advocated for a new regulatory model in New Hampshire that would compensate utilities based on their performance on different benchmarks, one of which could be the speed that they’re able to connect generators to the grid.

Legislation offers a potential solution

A bill to implement that died in the state senate this year.

But an effort to get the state’s Department of Energy to implement interconnection rules has moved forward.

That proposal comes after an investigation into interconnection from the state’s Department of Energy, which was directed to study the issue by a 2022 law. Their investigation culminated in a report, which recommended creating working groups to further study the issue and make recommendations.

The department opposed an initial version of the bill that would have required officials to implement interconnection rules by the end of 2024, arguing that timeline was unreasonable and that the legislature should allow working groups to come to a consensus on how those rules should look.

Now, the Department of Energy would have 15 months to submit draft rules. Lawmakers say they should set “cost-effective, timely and predictable processes for customer generators wishing to interconnect to the state’s electric grid.”

The bill has the blessing of both the House and the Senate, but it remains to be seen whether Gov. Chris Sununu will sign it into law.