The first rule of connecting DERs: Keep it simple

Solar Panel Installation

When I founded my distributed energy company a decade ago, the idea of 100% renewable energy was still on the fringe. Now, innovative utilities are setting 100% clean energy goals and working to integrate distributed energy resources (DERs) with homes; millions of people have installed rooftop solar; Tesla is a $500 billion-dollar company; and home battery storage has become a reality. The biggest reason for this massive shift is clear: Customers want clean energy, modern options, and lower cost. 

But there’s an under-discussed barrier to the growth of DERs on homes – utilities struggle with interconnection. The technical act of connecting a home to solar and grid power is surprisingly difficult– it is time-consuming, expensive, and complicated.

Today it is simply too difficult to connect DER’s to the grid. 

The sides or back of many solar homes look like high school science projects with PVC pipe, wiring, junction boxes. All of those extra connections and wiring equals work, time, money and diminished safety. Complicated connections add hours to an installation–and when you start working at the scale we expect in the next decade–that can mean millions of dollars in waste and unnecessary customization. Even worse, these complications create friction with customers–both for the distributed energy company and the utility. 

That’s why the first rule of connecting DER’s needs to be: Keep it simple. 

A great example of this principle is a project our company, ConnectDER, did with Entergy in New Orleans. Entergy New Orleans, the operating company, decided to get into rooftop solar and do a pilot – deploying utility-owned solar assets for 100 customers. Entergy wanted a straightforward installation process that prioritized the customer and didn’t require customizing each installation, complex education for installers, or excessive interconnection equipment on the side of homes. New Orleans-style homes do not have a lot of space for several junction boxes, different conduits, and the solar inverter. 

To address these challenges, they chose to standardize the connection by using our meter collars – a single, UL listed, device that has been tried and tested in programs and pilots across the country. The collar sits directly between the meter and the junction box itself. Simple. 

The solar installers simply detach the home’s meter, hook up our meter collar, replace the meter, and then plug the inverter’s power directly into the meter collar. The interconnection leaves the homeowner offline for a mere 5 minutes, as opposed to several hours for a traditional install. Simple for the installer, smooth for the customer, and easy on the home.

A less complicated installation means less work that utility technicians and solar installers have to do in the field — saving time, but also money. Most of these projects would have required an additional meter, typically costing over $1,000, Entergy avoided that cost by utilizing our meter collar. Even for a smaller pilot project like this one, reducing connection complexity meant saving hundreds of work hours. 

In addition to saving time, money and being more attractive — simple is safer. If a utility such as Entergy is going to deploy DERs in thousands of homes, it wants to reduce, or eliminate, the chance of safety issues through standardization. Entergy is now trying to identify areas to replicate this pilot project in different areas of their service territory. 

Related: New risks increase the urgency to use safety management systems

All of these benefits — time, money, aesthetics, safety — grow exponentially as neighborhoods and communities adopt more DERs. An hour less of installation time, significantly reduced costs, much lower safety concern — all become crucial when scaling to tens of millions  of installations. Simplicity is what made the Entergy project work, and it can be a key component to scaling huge DER projects. The big picture is that as utilities (and their customers) increasingly move towards DERs, making it simple is the key to success. 

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