Utilities often try to stop or slow solar-plus-storage projects at the Public Utility Commissions, says Christopher LaForge, instructor of HeatSpring’s Comprehensive Solar Plus Storage course. 

In one such effort,  We Energies, Wisconsin’s largest utility, increased its fee for connecting to the grid by almost a factor of 3, he says. 

In addition, under new tariffs, customers with generators such as PV systems may soon have to pay extra fees because, We Energies argues, they’re not contributing to the infrastructure, he says.

“Basically utilities understand that democratization with PV systems is going to ruin their business model,” he says. “So they adapt by making more money with their interconnection fees.”

When Energy Storage Leads to a Utility Death Spiral

Energy storage can short circuit the utility monopoly, he says. “I have clients that have built enough storage to  go off their utility. This is the “death spiral” for utilities but it doesn’t help anyone.”

Rather than participating in battles between utilities and generators, there’s a better way to move toward the new era of distributed energy, he says: by cooperating.

 “Nature survives because of inter- and intra-species cooperation,” he says. “I’m a big proponent of that.” And such cooperation will ensure that all parties benefit, he notes.

The Adantages of Cooperating

A handful of utilities are open to cooperating on solar-plus-storage projects–and reaping the benefits, he says. For example, they see that aggregating battery storage can multiply the usefulness of PV many times. Utilities can acquire frequency regulation and other services, and don’t have to invest in expensive generating plants.

One example: Sunverge  Corp. and Con Edison partnered to offer solar-plus-storage units to  300 New York homeowners. Con Edison aggregated the units to create a “virtual power plant” that provides resiliency to homeowners and grid resiliency to the utility, according to a Sunverge press release.

“This is collaborative and cooperative,” says LaForge.

An Example of Collaboration: Hartley Nature Center

Another example is one of LaForge’s projects, the Hartley Solar Plus Storage project, located at the Hartley Nature Center, Duluth, Minn., a green building operated by a nonprofit organization. The goal of the project is to create a net-zero building and also experiment with stacking the various storage values, including critical load backup and behind-the-meter savings, including peak demand shaving, says LaForge. 

What’s more, the solar-plus-storage system can island from the utility and provide power to the nature center during power outages, and will serve as a community charging resource during emergencies, according to a press release from Sunverge, which is the manufacturer of the intelligent storage equipment used at the nature center.

Embracing the Minnesota Nice Model

Minnesota Power Foundation provided a substantial  grant for the project, and a number of other organizations lent their support, including LaForge’s Great Northern Solar, the University of Minnesota Duluth, the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s SunShot program, the CleanEnergyGroup, Ecolibrium3, and the city of Duluth.

“This is a great example of broad cooperation,”  says LaForge. On the east and west coasts, stakeholders have had a habit of yelling at each other over energy projects. However, in Minnesota, the stakeholders cooperate, to everyone’s advantage, he says.

“We need to adopt the Minnesota Nice model,” LaForge says. “The utilities’ model has to change, and we can help them.”