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  • Writer's picturePacific Sun Technologies

Most pressing infrastructure needs do not require federal money or approval

President-elect Trump has called for a trillion dollars in infrastructure investment, but he wants the private sector to play a critical role. Fortunately, one of our nation’s immediate infrastructure needs will not have to rely on the federal government at all.

Private sector investment in a smarter grid will allow for better integration of distributed energy resources (DER), like rooftop solar, while strengthening reliability and making power systems more resilient. And it can all be done without a dime from Congress.

Regardless of one’s views on rooftop solar or net metering policies, encouraging early investment in infrastructure and technology — based on good planning and forecasting — is the most immediate way to capitalize on the benefits of this growing resource and improve electric reliability simultaneously.

Each power system is unique, meaning the investment needs of a particular system are dependent upon the interaction of multiple variables, including the size of the system, the load profile (e.g. residential, commercial, industrial), generation portfolio, geographic location and the age and “state of infrastructure” of the existing system. With so many variables, even a small number of solar-equipped homes acting as mini power plants can impact the operational integrity of a system, which could put local and even regional reliability at risk absent appropriate planning.

Yet many rooftop proponents suggest that integrating increasing amounts of rooftop solar onto the grid is a relatively simple, straightforward task. Utilities in turn argue for hefty solar surcharges to maintain the reliability and affordability of the system. The truth is somewhere in between, in that rooftop solar can indeed be integrated successfully, cost-effectively and with maintained reliability.

A wait and see approach puts all ratepayers at risk of black-outs, brown-outs or unplanned maintenance issues.

But make no mistake, there is nothing simple or straightforward about converting what was designed decades ago as a unidirectional system into a bidirectional system to allow homes to produce and export power back to the grid.

Consider, for example, your garden-variety garden hose. Turn the spigot and water flows through, courtesy of your local water provider. Now imagine reversing the flow. Pumping water back into a system that wasn’t originally designed to provide a two-way flow is going to have some impact on the existing infrastructure — pipes, pumps, valves and tanks, etc. The same holds true for the electric grid: Reversing the direction of electricity on a system that was designed primarily to deliver power — not absorb it — is having an impact on existing infrastructure — power lines, transformers, substations, control systems, etc.

Another difficulty is that solar power is a variable resource, which makes it unpredictable and difficult to forecast consistently in most regions. Moreover, as with any “behind the meter” resource, the system operator lacks adequate visibility into when, where and how much these resources are producing. With potentially hundreds and thousands of rooftop solar-equipped homes locally — and millions of homes nationally — acting as individual generators, each home becomes a critical but variable and potentially “invisible” component of the grid. Such a combination of intermittency and lack of resource visibility could seriously u