COVID-19 is hitting the economy hard and companies that develop microgrids and other distributed energy resources (DERs) are not immune. But there are ways that utilities can help them — and several are.
Utilities have good reason to step up. Solar and other DERs are especially important during this crisis because they can lower costs for homeowners who are struggling financially, said Ashley Eusey, sustainability specialist at Hoefer Wysocki, an architectural design firm based in Kansas City.
“By promoting alternative energy generation as a viable financial decision — especially during COVID-19 — this encourages individuals to keep investing in the local sustainability industry, especially solar and wind energy.”
She cited Evergy, which operates in Missouri and Kansas, as a utility that’s been promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy programs to help customers experiencing financial hardship. These options, which can save money on utility bills, are listed alongside their payment plans as a way to help pay their bills.
Michael Bakas, executive vice president, distributed energy systems at Massachusetts-based Ameresco, said that this is a good time for utilities to look to energy service companies as additional resources. “ESCOS are a perfect extension of utility capabilities,” he said. “We can deliver efficiency to utility customers at a time when they really need cost savings.”
Powersecure sees community microgrids growing in importance as more people are required to work from home. Utilities and grid operators have been reporting a shift in power demand since social distancing, with greater pressure on distribution lines serving residential communities.
“While no one could have foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic, those utilities that have implemented community microgrids are prepared to offer valuable resiliency to those that are being required to work from home,” said Eric Dupont, chief commercial officer for PowerSecure, a Southern Company subsidiary that offers a range of DERs and has focused on community microgrids since 2018.
Here’s a look at ways US utilities are supporting DERs from coast to coast.
Outreach, virtual inspections, deadline extensions
PSEG Long Island is offering a number of programs to support contractors, engineering firms and consultants who are providing customers with green energy services. The company recently checked in with nearly 200 of these companies to explain how it’s helping them.
“PSEG Long Island likes to be in the lead when it comes to clean energy,” said Mike Voltz, director of energy efficiency.
For the contractors who, due to COVID-19, aren’t now allowed to do physical installations of equipment, PSEG offers free online training programs that allow them to expand their expertise while they’re not working. They include home energy audit certification training and technical training in issues such as how to size heat pumps for homes and businesses.
“I think the contractors appreciate the ability to get technical training for themselves and employees and will have enhanced skills,” he said.
The company also continues to process rebates for energy efficiency and renewable energy during the pandemic by providing virtual inspections. That allows contractors to get paid sooner.
“Instead of sending employees out in the building, we allow building owners to take photos and videos to prove what they installed.” With this validation of work, the company can pay and process rebate applications.
PSEG Long Island also extended until August 31 deadlines for work on projects that qualify for rebates. This applies to rebate applications filed after March 15, when the state’s COVID-19 restrictions took effect.
Drones and online applications
Illinois-based Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) has adapted its work practices to minimize exposure of its workers to COVID-19 but continues to support DER, said Dan Gabel, director of projects and contract management, ComEd. The company’s distributed generation program continues to move forward thanks to new online programs that allow for authorization of solar installations.
Customers and contractors can submit photos of the equipment and specification sheets to move the rebate application along. And drones can be used to film the installation to help prove that work has been done for projects that involve rebates.
The program has been able to proceed with applications in 2020 without physical site inspections, said Gabel.
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Meanwhile, ComEd continues to meet — and in most cases, beat — timelines required for processing interconnection applications, he said.
ComEd also continues to pique customers’ interest in solar. “ComEd’s Green Power Connection Team, which helps customers make informed decisions about going solar and provides each customer with a single point of contact, has moved completely remote without interruption to our customers,” he said.
Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) is also allowing for online applications for its solar interconnection and electric vehicle (EV) projects. “PG&E continues to process applications and work with customers on their projects,” said Tamar Sarkissian, PG&E spokesperson.
If the customer’s interconnection project requires field work, the project will likely be put on hold, she noted. PG&E will be in touch with customers once their projects can move forward.
DER companies foresee more renewables, customer-centric future
“States still have their renewable goals and there are many shovel ready projects and funding mechanisms in place” — Mike Byrnes, Veolia
Distributed energy companies, too, are rethinking how they work so that they can keep moving projects forward.
Veolia, which builds sustainable energy, water and waste projects, is staggering work schedules so that fewer workers are on the job at once and can achieve social distancing goals, according to Mike Byrnes, senior vice president, Veolia Solutions, a subsidiary that focuses on microgrids and other DERs.
Ultimately, the renewable energy industry will help promote needed economic activity, he said.
“As we come out of this I see the renewables business being a driver for economic activity. States still have their renewable goals and there are many shovel ready projects and funding mechanisms in place (Think NY and NYSERDA). These should continue as both a boost to the economy and the environment,” Byrnes said.
What more can utilities do to help move DERs forward? Ameresco’s Bakas points to the need to prioritize interconnection agreements, a process that often slows projects. By doing so, utilities can bring real value to customers now, he said.
AJ Perkins, president of InstantOn, a company that focuses on nanogrids, said that utility support of customers’ DER projects is a win-win — during this crisis and into the future. “By creating a ‘customer centric, utility supported’ approach, utilities benefit as customers are willing and able to engage with utility DER programs designed to optimize grid management and stability.”
Elisa Wood contributed to this article.