The “Wild West” of connecting large solar projects in New Hampshire • New Hampshire Bulletin

Nearly two years ago, a Goshen couple signed a contract with an energy company to build a solar farm on their mountainside property, but the project was repeatedly delayed—and the family's life plans built on it came to a halt.

Kearsarge Energy approached the couple Kathryn and Peter Hanson about the project in the summer of 2022, Kathryn Hanson said. It would span 23 to 25 acres and take about two years to complete.

The prospect of extra income meant Peter Hanson could start planning for retirement, his wife said, but that timeline has been pushed back by the 21-month wait for Eversource to complete an interconnection study, a step the utility takes to see how major energy projects would affect the rest of the power grid.

This August marks two years since the Hansons signed the contract, but there is little indication as to when the project will finally come to fruition.

“Without this OK, nothing can move forward,” said Kathryn Hanson.

In New Hampshire, utilities essentially write their own rules for the process of connecting or interconnecting solar projects with a capacity of more than one megawatt – about enough energy to power 173 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association – to the network. According to the developers, this led to long, unpredictable delays.

“It's a bit like the Wild West,” says Sam Evans-Brown, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Energy New Hampshire, “and they (the utilities) have no deadlines. There's nothing really enforceable and they can just trample on the developers.”

Kearsarge Energy is one of three companies – including ReWild Renewables and Lodestar Energy – that A complaint filed against Eversource with the Department of Energy in March, arguing that grid connection delays violated state law, cost developers and landowners money, and prevented communities from achieving energy savings. The companies pointed to 28 projects that were stuck in the queue and could not be connected to the grid.

Eversource rejected these claimsand argued that the company often “went beyond any legal or regulatory requirements by engaging in proactive outreach” to speed up the projects. It also said the companies played a role in the projects' delays, citing, for example, six projects that were resized, sometimes multiple times.

One of those projects that changed size was the Goshen solar farm, said William Hinkle, Eversource's spokesman. That means the project essentially had to start over. He also said a study was required by ISO New England, the region's grid operator.

Involvement of legislators

The interconnection process for large solar projects could soon be dictated by the state rather than the utilities. The legislation, which is on the governor's desk, Senate Bill 391would urge the Department of Energy to “establish cost-effective, timely and predictable processes for customer generators seeking to connect to the state’s electric grid.”

It would require the Department to initiate a process to review and develop regulations establishing “uniform procedures” for connecting to utility infrastructure within 60 days of the bill’s passage.

If Governor Chris Sununu signs the bill, the department would have 15 months to submit the draft regulation to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, a body that provides legislative oversight of the regulatory process.

Clean Energy New Hampshire supports SB 391. Hinkle said Eversource has “no concerns with the final bill as amended.”

The lack of regulation for larger solar projects in New Hampshire has been exacerbated in recent years by an explosion of interest in clean energy development, driven by less expensive technologies, state tax breaks and high electricity prices, Evans-Brown said.

Five years ago, Eversource, the state's largest utility, received about 20 applications for grid connection per week, Hinkle said. In 2022 and 2023, that number increased to 200 per week and is now at about 100.

Ninety-five percent of those projects — typically residential projects under 100 kilowatts — are approved by Eversource for grid connection within a few days, Hinkle said. For larger projects — between 500 kilowatts and 1 megawatt — approval can take between 60 and 90 days, he said.

The largest projects – those over 1 megawatt – often take much longer. One reason for this, Hinkle said, is that they potentially trigger a review by ISO New England. He also said that getting projects done on time is a “shared responsibility” between Eversource and the developers, and that delays at one developer could impact other developers further down the waiting list.

Eversource takes about 60 days to complete interconnection studies, Hinkle said, but “there's not really a typical wait time” that a project must spend in the queue. Project developers and property owners said that wait time is often several months.

A frustrating journey

Howie Wemyss, co-owner of the Glen House Hotel at the base of Mount Washington in Gorham, said the hookup process took much longer — and was more frustrating — than he initially expected. This project has a capacity of about 300 kilowatts, he said, meaning it is not among the largest projects.

When it opened in 2018, the hotel wanted to be as sustainable as possible, featuring geothermal heating and cooling and a small hydroelectric plant. Solar power was the next building block to minimize or eliminate the need for off-grid electricity, Wemyss said.

So the hotel hired a contractor and submitted an application to Eversource to connect a solar system in May 2023. Wemyss believed they could get approval in time to take advantage of the energy benefits of the summer months.

This hope soon evaporated.

“Months went by and nothing,” Wemyss said. “And we emailed them or called them and nobody seemed to know anything. That was very frustrating because we thought we were going to build the plant in 2023.”

He began calling some elected officials in hopes that would move the process forward. Coincidentally or not, he said, it did — but the project appeared at the bottom of Eversource's long list, even though the application had been submitted months earlier.

After some persuasion, the hotel finally moved to the top of the waiting list. In May of this year, it received the results of the interconnection study and learned that it would have to pay much less than expected, Wemyss said.

Hinkle, the Eversource spokesman, said this project was fast-tracked and moved up the queue by months to allow for faster approval of midsize projects.

The project is scheduled to break ground in early July and begin operations in the fall, but the disappointment and impact remain.

“It was so frustrating,” Wemyss said. “We lost a whole year of production because of it and of course everything gets a little more expensive over time.”

For some project developers, New Hampshire is a less attractive investment location due to the unpredictability of the grid connection process.

Kate Tohme, director of interconnection policy at renewable energy company New Leaf Energy, told a House committee in March that “a clear set of interconnection standards” is one of the key factors the company considers before investing in the state.

Tohme said in the written certificate that the company was “extremely constrained” in moving forward with its three queued interconnection projects “due to a lack of access to information and a lack of regulatory certainty on schedules and costs.” (She did not name the utility with which New Leaf was trying to interconnect.)

And without clear guidelines in New Hampshire, she said, the company is “forced to focus its attention and resources on other states.”

Anna Harden

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