RICHMOND — After a state hearing examiner ruled Dominion Energy could temporarily enforce rules for how certain solar projects connect to the grid, developers are asking the State Corporation Commission to hold a full evidentiary hearing on whether or not those rules are justified.
The disagreement is the latest chapter in an ongoing fight between Dominion and solar companies that say the utility’s interconnection rules are blocking the development of small to medium-sized projects.
The latest ruling “effectively adopts new interconnection standards” for solar projects between 250 kilowatts and 1 megawatt of power “for an indefinite amount of time and without having published or properly noticed the proposed standards,” wrote Cliona Mary Robb, an attorney for the Distributed Solar Alliance, in a petition to the SCC.
The rules approved by Hearing Examiner Alexander Skirpan on Nov. 6 are a narrower version of the requirements Dominion previously imposed on solar projects with a capacity of 250 kilowatts to 3 megawatts. The utility had argued the rules were needed to ensure grid safety and reliability, but developers had said they forced companies to undertake unnecessary and costly technology upgrades that were stalling projects.
In August, the State Corporation Commission sided with developers, telling the utility it didn’t have the authority to enforce its existing rules. But the SCC also said that Dominion was allowed to “take the actions necessary” to maintain grid safety and reliability, permission the utility is citing in asking regulators to temporarily enforce the rules for the smaller set of projects while a work group finalizes a broader review of interconnection regulations.
The Distributed Solar Alliance in its latest petition argues that the imposition of the temporary rules sidesteps state requirements that new rules be published in the Virginia Register of Regulations and that interested parties have an “opportunity to present evidence, and be heard.”
Solar groups said the new rules will continue to impose stiff financial burdens on developers. The upgrades they call for, which include the installation of a dedicated transmission line and a relay panel for projects that exceed a certain threshold of generating capacity, have led to project costs rising by 20 to 40%, amounting to $1 million to $3 million, argued the Coalition for Community Solar Access. The Distributed Solar Alliance contended other cheaper technology that automatically cuts off power during faults is available, and said the industry is also moving away from the threshold requirements Dominion is using.
Tony Smith, chairman and co-founder of the Distributed Solar Alliance, told the Mercury that developers are worried the rules will create a precedent for other utilities to impose such requirements.
“We’ll see a domino effect in Virginia,” Smith said. A full evidentiary hearing on the issue, he added, “would result in much more clarity and more opportunity to have policy and procedures based on fact and not just on hearsay. We want to get down to brass tacks.”
But Dominion says the rules are “critical” to maintain the safety and reliability of the grid amid an influx of solar projects coming online as a result of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which requires decarbonization of the state’s electric grid by 2050.
In the company’s filings with regulators, Dominion said it has connected 75 solar projects capable of producing 36 megawatts of power to the grid to date, but there are 82 projects with a total capacity of almost 43 megawatts in line for interconnection.
The threshold requirement for the upgrades, Dominion also argued, is consistent with industry standards, and the cheaper inverter technology developers want can be too slow to isolate problems.
“If we get this wrong, the consequences are high,” wrote Dominion spokesperson Jeremy Slayton in an email. “Without an effective trip to disconnect energy sources from the grid, distributed generation (DG) resources can back feed energy onto our power lines creating a life threatening situation when downed electrical lines result from storm activity.”
Furthermore, he said, slow disconnections can “also create … power quality issues and can challenge system reliability.”
The solar developers have asked for the State Corporation Commission to review the hearing examiner’s ruling on an expedited timeline. Their previous request for an expedited process related to the broader interconnection rules resulted in a decision within three months.
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