Two Cohorts, Nine Research Teams Leverage Network Learning Effect to Spur Solar Energy-Grid Innovation, Resilience

Last edited: May 2, 2018 @ 11:25 PM ET

The US Dept. of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recently enlisted an inaugural cohort of nine project teams to launch the Solar Energy Innovation Network (SEIN), a nationwide initiative that aims to spur innovative research and development associated with solar energy-grid integration and power grid resiliency.

NREL selected nine SEIN project teams from across the US to form the first of two planned cohorts and participate in the first, 18-month round of research in the wake of conducting a competitive solicitation process in summer 2017. Each cohort will focus on identifying and developing new solutions that resolve the emerging challenges associated with growing penetration of distributed solar and other renewable energy resources on local, state, and regional power grids. That may encompass solar photovoltaics (PV) and other distributed energy technologies, such as battery-based energy storage, capable of enhancing grid efficiency, reliability and resiliency, as well as environmental sustainability.

NREL Solar Energy Innovation Network (SEIN) Meeting
Credit: NREL

SEIN marks the initiation of a new, strategic approach for NREL and its partners, one that leverages the network learning effect by creating nationwide, peer-to-peer research networks aimed at accelerating innovation that addresses common, shared challenges, explained Kristen Ardani, SEIN principal investigator and NREL solar program lead. The idea came out of feedback NREL received from participants in the series of solar energy technical assistance and research programs NREL has been conducting with public and private sector organizations across the US in recent years, Ardani told Solar Magazine.

A network learning approach to resolving shared solar challenges

“Oftentimes state and local decision-makers are working to address similar challenges, but it can be difficult to share learnings across diverse geographies and jurisdictions. We wanted to bridge this gap by leveraging a networked learning effect to create a new model for data, analytics, research and technical assistance programs that facilitates dialogue and shared learning across states and cities regarding their most pressing challenges,” Ardani said during an interview.

SEIN is dedicated to spurring innovations that advance early stage research, testing and pilot implementations involving distributed solar PV-to-grid integration, in particular zooming in on new ways and means that can enhance grid resiliency. As NREL succinctly describes it, SEIN “assembles diverse teams of stakeholders to research cutting-edge solutions for a more reliable and resilient grid.”

Research and technical assistance topics include gaining greater understanding as to how solar PV and complementary, enabling technologies, such as energy storage, can enhance grid resilience by providing generation capacity as well as ancillary energy services, such as frequency regulation, Ardani elaborated.

“That has been limited to a certain subset of grid services, but the integration of solar PV and energy storage can provide a whole suite of services,” she said.

Via SEIN, NREL is working to address this issue by partnering with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and PJM Interconnection, a Regional Transmission Organization (RTO) responsible for power grid service spanning all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia. PJM and CAISO (California Independent Systems Operator) are the two main wholesale electricity market operators that allow those with solar power generation and energy storage capacity to participate in wholesale electricity markets.

Solar research data, analytics, financial and technical assistance

Broadly defined,

NREL’s role [in SEIN] is to provide research, data, and analytic support that facilitates informed decision making related to solar PV and complementary technologies. NREL is working with a network of partners and subject matter experts to achieve program objectives.

– Ardani said.

Two Cohorts of Solar Energy Innovation Network Members on the Map
The program’s first two cohorts bring together teams from across the country to address shared challenges and drive problem solving and innovation for tomorrow’s electric grid. | Source: NREL

Having just gotten under way, SEIN’s first round of research is slated to draw to a close around spring 2019. A second, 18-month round is to follow.

The initial cohort of nine SEIN project teams spans the nation. They have been divided into two groups, each of which is working on related topical areas of research. One research group is focusing on exploring and investigating ways in which integrated solar energy-energy storage system can enhance the flexibility of power grids, for instance.

“Grouping teams according to a topical area of research leverages results for the benefit of the entire program, as well as other entities that aren’t participating,” Ardani said.

Zooming in on the “locational” aspects, methods and value of solar PV and distributed energy resources

Six members of the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA) comprise one of the nine SEIN project teams. Learning of SEIN’s launch, CESA approached its members, laid out the program’s scope and scale, its objectives and strategic approach, and the opportunities submitting an application to join the program would offer, CESA Executive Director Warren Leon told Solar Magazine.

CESA and six of its members submitted their application in Aug. 2017. They recently learned they had been selected as one of the nine program participants. The six organizations participating in SEIN under the CESA banner are:

  • Connecticut Green Bank
  • Office of the People’s Counsel for the District of Columbia
  • New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission – Sustainable Energy Division
  • Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources
  • Washington Department of Commerce – State Energy Office
  • Wisconsin Office of Energy Innovation

The CESA-led team is a member of the SEIN cohort assigned the topic “Improving Grid Flexibility and Resiliency through Advanced Siting and Operations of Solar + DER (or ‘Grid Flex’).” Elaborating, NREL’s SEIN team explains: “[T]his cohort will focus on quantifying the value of combining solar and other DERs, such as storage, of for grid flexibility, reliability, and resiliency. Activities for this cohort will include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Assessing opportunities to improve PV’s value through siting, load management, storage, and better integration with transportation electrification.
  • Evaluating options for rate structures and other compensation mechanisms to effectively value solar + DER systems’ various value streams.
  • Exploring program and policy options to maximize the value of solar + DER, incl. locational value and wholesale market participation.
  • Improving utility and ISO/RTO planning to incorporate PV and other DERs, and enhance grid resiliency and flexibility.
  • Develop needed data sets and tools for states and ISOs to evaluate solar + DER solutions for increased grid resiliency.

“NREL has come up with an innovative approach for helping a wide range of organizations across the country advance their solar energy activities. And rather than just providing offers of technical assistance and/or awarding grants, they’re providing data and analytics that should prove especially valuable,” Leon said during our interview.

This is an area where we really need the help of NREL and its partners. The analysis and technical expertise provided by NREL is going to help us all figure out the methods and best practices to solve common, shared problems, and then determine how best to proceed.

A multi-state solar initiative and blueprint for other states

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Taking their first steps to put SEIN into effect, the CESA and eight other SEIN project teams are working with NREL to carefully assess and define their research, analysis and technical assistance needs and expectations with an eye towards identifying those most significant and common. CESA’s members are reaching out to stakeholders within their states to assist in the effort, Leon explained.

Members of the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA)

“Some of the NREL analysis and some of the assistance CESA will provide will be helpful to all our members and their stakeholders, but NREL and CESA will also work with each of them individually to address their specific needs,” he said.

The CESA and eight other SEIN project teams will gather at NREL regularly during the course of the 18-month program to take part in workshops during which they’ll report on their progress to date, exchange data, share their experiences, identify results that could be applied more broadly and work jointly to clearly define and resolve challenges, Leon said.

“When distributed energy is deployed optimally, it can offer benefits to the customer, to the grid, and to the other ratepayers,” Leon was quoted in a news release. “Well-sited DER can provide resiliency benefits, reduce grid congestion, and help defer or avoid distribution system upgrade costs.”

The solutions developed and demonstrated by this multistate initiative will serve as a blueprint for other states facing similar challenges and opportunities. To cap the program CESA and the eight other SEIN program participants will work with NREL to produce a series of white papers and presentations that will be made available free to the public at the end of each round, Ardani explained. NREL will also host a summit during which each of nine project teams will present the key outcomes of their research and explain how they plan to leverage them to resolve challenges they face. comment↓


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