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    Solar gridlock?


    May 19, 2022 - Henry Schwan

     

      "There is no other available energy source. National Grid is the only electricity company in the city of Worcester."

      Alex Guardiola

      Vice president of government affairs and public policy at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce

      WORCESTER – Efforts to add solar panels to some downtown area properties are stalled because the energy grid owned and operated by National Grid can't support the energy produced by the panels, according to sources.

      National Grid disputes that claim. It insists solar panels are possible, but it requires additional infrastructure that is the responsibility of the customer to pay for.

      There is concern the grid is outdated and making it hard for some businesses to run their operations optimally in the 21st century. Another worry is the grid is an obstacle as the city attempts to get more of its power from renewable sources in order to run cleaner and more efficiently.

      Two examples highlight the challenge.

      Worcester is exploring the possibility of putting solar panels atop the city-owned DCU Center, but can't because the grid can't handle the increased energy load from the panels, said John Odell, the city's chief sustainability officer. The increased load would trip circuit breakers and result in power outages.

      In order to add panels, expensive upgrades are needed and Odell said it's unclear who is responsible for paying the bill.

      In an email to the Telegram & Gazette, National Grid said its energy grid can support solar panels if customers pay for upgrades. But customers haven't found it "financially viable" to do it.

      "The assumption that solar isn't feasible due to our system is incorrect. The electric distribution system in downtown Worcester can accommodate distributed generation, however it requires additional infrastructure to be added on the customer side that is the responsibility of the customer. Thus far, customers have found it to be not financially viable."

      Odell explained that the current grid is one-directional, which means power flows one way into downtown from outside the area. Therefore, the grid isn't able in its current state to take power generated from solar panels on top of the DCU and transfer it back into the grid.

      National Grid explained that upgrades — paid by the customer — allow power to flow to both the customer and to the grid.

      "The purpose of the additional infrastructure is to provide the capacity for the power to flow both towards the customer and from the customer back to the electric system, to install the necessary protective systems to ensure the electric system correctly identifies fault conditions and isolates faults from the system, and to provide monitoring and visibility of the interconnecting equipment," it said.

      City officials have met with National Grid twice to discuss the idea of solar panels on the DCU, said Odell, including a meeting in April. A National Grid spokeswoman said she's not aware of any discussions between the parties regarding "distributed generation" on the DCU Center.

      Ice Center explores solar panels

      Similarly, the Fidelity Bank Worcester Ice Center, a private facility with two hockey rinks and other amenities located at 112 Harding St. unsuccessfully explored the possibility of putting solar panels atop its building.

      The idea was given the thumbs-down by National Grid, according to Alex Guardiola, vice president of government affairs and public policy at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

      The reason given by National Grid, according to Guardiola, was energy from the panels that flows into the grid would likely overload the system, resulting in power outages.

      Ice Center owner NFS Leasing declined to comment through Stephen Quist, NFS director of facilities, property and operations management.

      Derek Alfama, Ice Center general manager, supports solar at the facility.

      "We would certainly love a potential solar project. Any way we could potentially save on electricity bills and energy bills would be a benefit to us," said Alfama, who noted he is unfamiliar with any previous efforts to add solar panels to the ice center since he became general manager four years ago.

      While Guardiola said National Grid management has been responsive to other business concerns, including upgrades to so-called "vaults" that house necessary electric equipment, some downtown businesses are concerned about the grid and its ability to meet their needs.

      "Absolutely (some businesses are concerned about the downtown grid)," said Guardiola.

      Sticking point

      From the city's perspective, it's unclear who is responsible for the added infrastructure costs, said Odell. Upgrades can be viewed as either benefiting a single property and/or a larger area of multiple properties and who pays the costs can be interpreted differently by customers and utility companies.

      National Grid believes customers — in this case the city — are responsible for paying those costs, but haven't done it because it's too expensive.

      "The portion of the project that the customer is responsible to fund is determined by tariff, this is true for interconnections and for new electric services," stated National Grid.

      At the ice center, solar panels were considered to offset the building's energy costs. NFS Leasing paid for a feasibility study at National Grid's request in order to get a clear picture if solar panels would work, according to Guardiola.

      "In the end, National Grid said again that you can't tie into the grid because the system can't be overloaded," said Guardiola.

      The rink then suggested putting its own batteries on nearby utility poles so the business could generate its own energy that flows directly into the building to power its operations.

      National Grid said its company policy doesn't allow that step, said Guardiola. What's really going on, according to Guardiola, is National Grid loses revenue if the rink generates its own power that doesn't flow into the grid.

      On a larger scale, Guardiola said National Grid is making it hard for Worcester to reach its green energy goals.

      "It's troubling when a no-contract owner National Grid for electric services is not helping us move to the next level," said Guardiola. "There is no other available energy source. National Grid is the only electricity company in the city of Worcester."

      Vaulting ahead

      While it appears the solar panel issue — in terms of who pays for grid upgrades — is up for question, National Grid made progress on upgrading vaults that are necessary to meet the energy needs of downtown businesses, said Guardiola.

      National Grid explained a vault is a room that houses transformers and other devices to provide electric service. When there's no room inside a building for equipment or a property has excess energy needs, then a vault becomes necessary.

      A vault can be free-standing or part of a building and can be located above or below ground.

      In the past, the Chamber expressed concern on behalf of downtown businesses that National Grid wasn't moving fast enough to upgrade vaults as part of a Main Street resurfacing project that included sidewalk improvements.

      Modifications to the vaults were needed to meet the requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Since 2019, National Grid said it modified 15 vaults and expects to finish the last three this year.

      Who pays for it?

      National Grid is generally responsible for installing, owning and maintaining electrical equipment housed inside network vaults, said the utility. If equipment is at the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced, National Grid will pay for it.

      In some cases, payment for portions of equipment inside the vault is the responsibility of the customer.

      "If upgrades are required because of a change in a customer's usage over and above what was originally agreed upon between the customer and National Grid, portions of the project cost can be the responsibility of the customer," said National Grid.

      Meanwhile, the structure that contains the vault's electrical equipment, called housing, is installed and owned by the customer and must be constructed to meet building, electric, fire code and National Grid's requirements, said the utility. Also, customers must pay for maintenance of the housing.

      "Equipment inside vaults as well as vault housings are inspected routinely by National Grid and preventative maintenance is performed on National Grid's equipment. Customers are responsible for the maintenance of vault housings," said the utility.

      Also, if a vault is located on private property, the customer is responsible for owning and maintaining it, said National Grid.

      "Most vaults are customer-owned and -maintained. When the vaults are not maintained, it is difficult for National Grid to provide reliable electric service and an unmaintained vault presents a safety issue for National Grid employees who need to operate and maintain the service equipment."

      Contact Henry Schwan at henry.schwan@telegram.com.

      "There is no other available energy source. National Grid is the only electricity company in the city of Worcester."

      Alex Guardiola

      Vice president of government affairs and public policy at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce

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