As Massachusetts pioneers a new way to pay for grid upgrades, some solar projects are left waiting

As Massachusetts pioneers a new way to pay for grid upgrades, some solar projects are left waiting

More than 100 megawatts of planned solar projects throughout southeastern Massachusetts are facing lengthy delays as needed grid upgrades wait for state approval.

Arrays at Cape Cod schools, installations on an affordable housing complex on Martha’s Vineyard, and residential solar arrays for low-income homeowners are among the planned renewable energy developments that have been held up or reconfigured as regulators consider utility requests to upgrade substations and spread out the cost among customers. Until these improvements are approved and executed, no solar developments larger than 15 kilowatts for single-phase systems or 25 kilowatts for triple-phase systems can be connected to the grid in many of the covered areas. 

“This stalling runs counter to the state’s climate goals,” said Kate Warner, energy planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the regional planning agency for Dukes County. “The Vineyard wants to do our part, but we can’t because we can’t add any more significant solar to the grid.”

These delays are one more twist in the ongoing growing pains the state — and many places across the country — is experiencing as the move away from fossil fuels changes the flow of power through the system. As Massachusetts aims to go carbon-neutral by 2050, the transition to home heat pumps and electric vehicles is ramping up the need for electricity. At the same time, growing numbers of solar arrays are sending more and more power to the grid. The surge in both supply and demand has utilities and regulators scrambling to expand and strengthen the grid as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. 

Under previous rules in Massachusetts, a distributed generation project such as a new solar development would find itself on the hook for any expensive grid upgrades needed to connect the new power source to the system. Even though these improvements would benefit future projects, the development that triggered the need for the upgrades would have to bear the cost. 

To remedy this imbalance, the state energy department created a process that lets utilities propose plans to spread the cost burden of some grid upgrades among ratepayers, then recoup some of this money from future distributed generation projects and use it to reimburse ratepayers. These capital investment project proposals must be approved by utilities regulators. Massachusetts is the first state to create such a process. 

In April 2022, Eversource — which covers 140 towns around Boston and in the southeastern and western parts of the state — filed six such proposals relating to improvements in regions throughout southeastern Massachusetts. One of the proposals has been approved; the other five remain pending, raising questions about what happens next — and when. 

“The thinking was that it was going to be pretty quickly reviewed and approved — and that has not been the case,” said Mariel Marchand, power supply planner for the Cape Light Compact, the regional energy administrator that serves the 15 towns of Cape Cod and the six on Martha’s Vineyard.  

The Department of Public Utilities was unable to share any concrete timeline, noting that it intends to consider each application in detail. Because the process is new — in Massachusetts and beyond — there is no precedent for how long such deliberations should or usually do take. 

The capital investment project proposal for Cape Cod, which also impacts Martha’s Vineyard, calls for upgrading the distribution lines connected to five substations and additional equipment on three substations.

The goal is to make the infrastructure ready for a significant amount of solar and wind power to come online in coming years as part of the state’s push toward decarbonization and electrification, said Eversource spokesperson William Hinkle. 

On Martha’s Vineyard, the wait for these improvements means a 20-unit affordable housing development originally designed to maximize its solar production has had to go back to the drawing board. The project, intended to provide solar power and the associated savings to low-income residents, will now have to be configured as 10 smaller systems, each with its own interconnection. This arrangement, however, raises other regulatory questions about having more than one system on a single parcel of land, creating another delay. 

“That project probably could’ve been built by now, but it’s now held up in this more complicated planning process,” said Ben Underwood, co-founder and co-CEO of Resonant Energy, the solar developer on the project. 

On Cape Cod, the delays are slowing the deployment of a pilot program that provides low-income houses with solar panels, battery storage, and heat pumps. While many residential projects fall under the 15-kilowatt cap and can still be connected, the addition of batteries can increase the system size close to or over the limit, Marchand said.

“Before we recommend that this customer should have a battery, we have to make sure it can be installed,” she said. “It’s more work on our end, but we’re making it work.”

If the pending plans are rejected, the old system that would impose prohibitive costs on a small number of projects will remain in effect. If they are approved, it will still take significant time to complete the upgrades. At the moment, therefore, all anyone can do is wait. 

“Right now we are dead in the water,” Warner says.

As Massachusetts pioneers a new way to pay for grid upgrades, some solar projects are left waiting is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

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