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Experts at ISO NE conference: Go slow on renewable portfolios

Renewable energy and its integration in the power grid took center stage at this year’s annual meeting on the future of the New England system.

ISO New England, the regional grid operator, hosted more than 100 top energy regulators, officials and advocates at Boston’s Colonnade Hotel last month. Among the Vermont faces in the crowd were Public Service Board Chair James Volz, Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia and VELCO Vice President Kerrick Johnson.

One of the key messages conveyed by power grid and renewable energy experts was that states should continue to grow their renewable energy portfolios. But they should do so prudently.

This message sounds a different chord than that of Vermont’s renewable energy advocates, who say the grid can play catch-up with a rapidly growing sector.

“If you get it wrong, bad things happen,” Nicholas Miller, a senior director at General Electric’s energy consulting arm, said about developing the grid in accordance with renewable energy growth. “Germany didn’t see 20 Gigawatts with a ‘G’ (of solar) coming in in 24 months. They got their interconnection rules wrong … and it’s costing them a quarter of a billion dollars to put the genie back into the bottle.”

Miller is an expert on integrating wind and solar resources into power grids. He has authored over 100 technical papers on wind generation, and he holds 18 U.S. patents.

He explained after the meeting that a safety mechanism was built into the German system to trip photovoltaic solar generators if high levels of generation surged onto the grid. European engineers hadn’t anticipated the rapid rate of photovoltaic growth, and now they have to pay a massive price to retrofit the grid.

“It’s a cautionary tale that these seemingly esoteric grid issues could come back to have real financial consequences,” Miller said.

Rachel Peterson is a policy adviser for the California Public Utilities Commission who sat on a panel with Miller.

“Politically it is very easy to create incentives and to create programs that reach toward the future,” she said. “It is much more difficult to be the folks on the line … actually implementing the directives of the politicians.”

Vermont, for example, created a Comprehensive Energy Plan that calls on the state to draw 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.

“While many of our political leanings might sympathize … with larger targets for reducing GHG emissions in our particular state, when it comes down to it we are still working with an infrastructure that was not designed or built for this distant or forward-looking view of the future,” Peterson said.

Miller says that power grids in the U.S. must become more adaptable to work with renewable generators.

“The entire grid needs to be flexible to handle the variability of uncertainty that comes with solar and wind, whether it’s distributed or from a central station,” he said. “The gas plants need to be able to run up and down faster than they used to … You need to have marketing and monitoring mechanisms to ensure flexibility … At some point, investment in that flexibility needs to be made, and you want to do it in a transparent fashion.”

One of the chief topics of discussion was distributed generation. The term refers to small renewable energy generators less than 5 megawatts in capacity. ISO New England doesn’t account for these small generators. But they are generating an increasing level of the region’s power, as New England’s appetite for power levels off due to greater efficiency.

Recchia and Johnson are among those who have spearheaded an effort in New England to incorporate distributed generation into ISO’s forecasting. A region-wide distributed generation workforce met for the first time at the end of September to figure out how to include these smaller projects in projections.

Recchia says expensive grid reliability projects are built based on projections. A VELCO analysis this summer resulted in $250 million worth of savings for ratepayers across New England. Johnson and Recchia said the analysis showed that high-cost grid upgrades were not needed thanks to the recent and rapid growth of small renewable energy projects in Vermont.

“This is real and measurable,” Recchia said.