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Concord Monitor – Developers say NH's process for connecting electricity to the grid is slowing clean energy projects

New Hampshire lags behind other New England states in the development of renewable energy sources. But solar projects are being developed across the state. More than a hundred have cleared the first hurdle in the development process: finding a site. But they have been stuck for several months waiting for what is known as a connectivity study.

Before a power project can be built, energy providers examine how it will fit into the overall power grid and whether upgrading the poles, lines, substations and transformers that deliver the new power to homes and businesses is necessary to handle the increased output.

Solar developers say the line for these studies at Eversource, the state's largest utility, is as long as I-93 on a holiday weekend: slow and frustrating.

According to Eversource's latest report, there are about 470 megawatts of distributed energy projects, mostly solar, lined up for grid connection. If these 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 complaints with the New Hampshire Department of Energy, alleging that Eversource has delayed their projects, violated state laws encouraging smaller energy projects and prevented municipalities from saving on energy costs and reducing greenhouse gases.

In the complaint filed in March, the companies said they 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 beyond assuming their applications were complete. According to a May filing by Eversource, one of those projects now has an interconnection agreement.

“There is no technical or electrical reason for the delay,” said Matthew Doubleday, head of interconnection at Rewild Renewables. “They could be moving forward. But for some reason, whether it's resource issues or something else, they're not moving forward.”

Doubleday's company, which is based in New Hampshire and works primarily on community solar projects, has 10 projects in Eversource's queue. Two of them, submitted in February and June of last year, are the only projects at a specific substation, meaning they should be first in line, according to Doubleday. Eversource has not yet reviewed either, he said.

“Community solar projects everywhere are facing connectivity issues. What's unique about New Hampshire is that it's the only state right now that's actually studying this issue,” Doubleday said.

Eversource has defended itself against the companies' claims and asked the New Hampshire Department of Energy to dismiss its lawsuit.

“Eversource is doing everything in its power to process project applications as expeditiously as possible while complying with all legal and regulatory requirements,” the company wrote in its response to the complaint.

The company also noted in its response that solar developers have changed the size of some projects and withdrawn others, slowing the process. In response to the developers' complaints, the company said longer wait times “are not unusual for large project proposals that are subject to significant changes by the applicant, sometimes multiple times, nor are they necessarily unreasonable given the factors described in this response.”

An influx of interest

New Hampshire utilities have seen a historic increase in connection requests.

Alec O'Meara, a spokesman for Unitil, said the company processed about 200 applications per year at the high end between 2019 and 2021, and 900 in 2023. The company is managing the additional applications by hiring external staff during busy periods and trying to handle more of the application process online.

Colin Manning, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Electric Co-Op, said the number of applications has more than doubled in the past five years and that the company has tried to streamline the process and educate members on what needs to be included in applications.

Liberty Utilities declined to comment on their connection queue.

At Eversource, according to company spokesman William Hinkle, over the past five years the number of applications processed per week has increased from 20 to about 100, sometimes even over 200.

The utility's engineering department used to handle connection requests as part of its broader work. Now, it has three people full-time and one person part-time in “customer service,” which handles connection requests with help from staff on other teams. Eversource also says it has hired contractors, updated its software systems and improved staff training.

Hinkle said 95 percent of interconnection requests – mostly smaller projects – are expected to be approved “within a few days.”

For medium-sized projects, an expedited process is used, which Hinkle says takes about 60 to 90 days. For larger projects, the wait times are long.

Doubleday admits that it recognizes that Eversource is struggling with an increase in its interconnection workload.

“But that's a reality everywhere, in many states,” he said. “It's been almost two years since they've had that surge, and the queue has only gotten longer. We haven't seen much improvement in processing projects in the queue that meet the industry standard.”

ReWild Renewables has projects with Eversource in Massachusetts, and Doubleday says they haven't seen the same delay there, especially with projects that are first in line at their substation. Utilities in Maine, which has similar grid considerations to New Hampshire, are also moving faster, according to Doubleday.

When asked about the average processing time for grid connection requests in the three states where Eversource operates, the company said schedules are relatively consistent in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Hinkle noted that projects often have too many variables to provide an average timeframe, and that for larger projects, the schedule may be controlled by the region's grid operator.

Obstacles to interconnection

Although project developers say they are having particularly big grid connection issues in New Hampshire, connecting new energy sources to the grid is a statewide problem, says Sam Evans-Brown, director of Clean Energy New Hampshire.

This process is currently proving to be “the main obstacle” to progress in the energy transition, he said.

In the U.S., states and grid operators are handling interconnection differently as many grapple with the surge in applications and work to develop a more efficient process. How quickly this happens could impact how much the country can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years.

In Texas, which has led the nation in wind energy deployment and ranked second in solar deployment over the past decade, the grid operator uses an approach called “connect and manage.” Project developers can accept the risk of curtailing power when the grid is overloaded rather than reviewing and implementing more comprehensive upgrades up front.

In some states, utilities have begun examining projects in groups so developers can spread the cost of upgrades across multiple projects. Eversource says this method is already being used in Massachusetts and is just beginning to be adopted in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire is one of 17 states currently receiving a “D” grade from Freeing the Grid, an initiative run by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and Vote Solar to evaluate statewide grid connection practices. All other New England states have a “C” grade. New Mexico is the only state with an “A” grade.

According to Freeing the Grid, New Hampshire does not have any of the criteria they consider in their evaluation, which include set schedules for checking connection quality, data sharing, and specific dispute resolution procedures. What saves New Hampshire from an “F” grade is the fact that it has statewide interconnection policies in the first place.

“In New Hampshire, we simply have a paradigm where the utilities dictate the schedule,” Evans-Brown said. “They dictate the standards. They even dictate what equipment gets installed at the point of connection.”

And utilities, he said, don't have much incentive to speed up the interconnection process. With one small exception, they aren't allowed to own facilities that generate energy. The companies generally make a profit by building infrastructure. There's no direct money to be made from interconnection studies. So advocates argue that utilities aren't 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, so they have an active interest in doing this as cheaply as possible,” Evans-Brown said.

Clean Energy New Hampshire is advocating for a new regulatory model in New Hampshire that would compensate utilities based on their performance on various benchmarks. One of those benchmarks could be the speed at which they can connect generators to the grid.

Legislation offers a possible solution

A bill to implement this regulation failed in the state Senate this year.

But efforts to get the state's Energy Department to implement interconnection rules have made progress.

This proposal follows an investigation into interconnectivity by the state's Department of Energy, which was tasked with studying the issue by a 2022 law. Their investigation culminated in a report recommending the creation of working groups to further study the issue and make recommendations.

The ministry rejected an initial version of the bill that would have required authorities to implement connection rules by the end of 2024. It argued that this timetable was unreasonable and that lawmakers should give working groups time to reach a consensus on the design of these rules.

Now the Energy Department has 15 months to come up with a draft bill. Lawmakers say they should establish “cost-effective, timely and predictable processes for customer generators seeking to connect to the state's power grid.”

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

Anna Harden

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