US: Interconnection queries raised as solar found to be fastest growing electricity source for utilities

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In its Fifth annual utility solar rankings, SEPA finds that U.S. utilities are "adapting to solar as their fastest growing electricity source". Overall, it says the country’s utilities interconnected over 62,500 photovoltaic systems in 2011. Specifically, 13 were said to have interconnected more than 1,000 systems, while 22 interconnected over 500.

In total, nearly 1.5 GW of new photovoltaic capacity was added to the U.S. grid in 2011, equivalent to six natural gas plants. Furthermore, SEPA says that 15 utilities connected over 20 MW each, and eight, more than 50 MW each. "While residential homes accounted for more than 89 percent of the installations, commercial rooftop installations accounted for more than 53 percent of the capacity," it explains.

Interconnection

Looking ahead, SEPA expects to see continued growth in 2012, due to the ongoing price decreases and large-scale solar plant contracts. "This annual volume of smaller, distributed solar interconnections is unlike anything the utility industry has previously managed, and conservative forecasts indicate that this number will grow to more than 150,000 interconnections in 2015," writes the association.

This trend may be encouraging for solar. However, SEPA notes that questions arise over how the utilities can physically deal with the volume of systems to be grid connected. It additionally asks how the distribution grid will accommodate this high-penetration growth and how the solar industries will resolve the economic implications of reduced sales of electricity.

Utility-driven

SEPA firmly believes that solar electricity procured by utilities is essential for "rapid solar market expansion" in the U.S. In 2011, it says that utility-driven procurement represented a massive 39 percent of 2011’s new solar capacity, compared to just nine percent in 2008. It adds that this could increase to 1.5 GW this year.

"As compared to the more traditional customer-oriented market segment, this sector consists of direct wholesale purchases and utility-owned projects, which were 26 percent and 13 percent of the market respectively. Large solar projects (> 10 MW) make up the bulk of this capacity with an estimated 18 projects totaling 332 MW, up from 226 MW in 2010," explains SEPA.

On top

At 228 MW, PG&E was found by SEPA to have installed the most amount of photovoltaic systems in 2011. The utility additionally integrated over 13,600 customer-cited projects. PG&E was followed by Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G), which installed 181 MW, the Arizona Public Service (APS), which installed 144 MW, Southern California Edison (CA), which installed 138.5 MW and New Jersey’s Atlantic City Electric, which installed 61 MW.

In terms of solar watts-per-customer, Vineland Municipal Electric Utility ranked first nationally with 769 watts-per-customer. Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation and Fayetteville Public Utilities ranked second and third, respectively.

The fifth Top 10 Solar Rankings investigates the amount of new solar power interconnected by U.S. utilities in 2011. It covers over 240 of most solar-active utilities, which are said to represent over 99 percent of the country’s solar electric power marketplace.

The full report will be available in May.