If your organization's going solar, you're automatically launching two long-term business partnerships. The first will be with the solar company that plans and builds your photovoltaic (PV) solar system. That partnership is going to start with the ongoing interactions that will take place during the solar installation process.
Your other long-term partner will be the local utility. Once you connect solar panels to the grid, you're going to have a much different—but much more profitable—relationship with that utility than you've ever had before. The groundwork for this changed relationship will be established during the planning and construction phase for your PV solar system.
Shepherding the project
Your solar company knows how solar systems work, and they'll know what the utilities are looking for during installation. Once a contract is signed to build, most of the day-to-day contact with the utility will be mediated by two people. The first will be the project manager: the person who will shepherd the construction of your solar project to completion. The project manager will work closely with the second: an interconnection coordinator. That person will handle the technical end of matching your solar system with the utility’s gear.
What’s going to happen
Utilities change from region to region. All of them have different rules about connecting solar panels to the grid. It’s the job of the project manager and interconnection coordinator to understand what those rules are and to make sure the project stays on track. Here are just a few of the major issues they’ll work with you to address:
- At first, most of the planning for your solar system will be theoretical. Once the project manager and interconnection coordinator get involved though, things will start to get real. The project begins with a series of surveys that study everything from the utility’s underground cables to your own switch gear (the breakers, fuses, etc. that protect and isolate your equipment). They’ll also study the topography of the area and anything else that might affect solar production in the area. This will help answer questions about where your system should be sited.
- All this information will be used to create a "30 percent design.” (It’s called that because once it’s done, the design is about 30% complete.) This plan will consist mainly of two drawings—one is a single line drawing showing the electrical diagram, and the other is a site plan indicating where the solar arrays will be placed. These will be submitted (as an “Interconnection Application”) to the utility with a request for permission to proceed with building.
- While you're waiting on approval from the utility, the project manager will be working on completing the design and obtaining any other required permits. There can be building permits, city permits, state permits and others. This is normally one of the biggest obstacles to getting a solar system built. The permitting process depends entirely on where you're located and how complicated your system is. Some utilities and local governments make the process relatively easy. Others are more challenging. In some cases, utilities also have outdated equipment that has to be upgraded—at your expense—to work with your design. (Don’t worry, this will all be worked out before any construction begins. There shouldn’t be any surprises.) At the same time, the utility can dictate changes in your wiring, meter and other equipment to make sure everything's compatible. If your project is especially big, it might require additional grid integration studies that could delay things further.
- During this part of the process, the interconnection manager focuses on the application while the project manager tackles the permitting. But once the utility gives its blessing and construction starts, the project manager takes the lead on most everything. It will be his or her job to avoid any bumps in the road while the panels and other hardware are delivered, installed and connected. Once that's done, government inspectors (usually, either the city or state) check over everything to make sure it meets their requirements. The project manager deals with the inspectors and handles all the inevitable last-minute tweaks.
- Once that inspection's out of the way, the project manager will request permission to operate (referred to as a “PTO”) from the utility. The utility then sends someone out to make sure your system is no threat to the utility's hardware. For instance, they'll confirm the necessary equipment is in place to automatically cut off in the event of a system-wide blackout. The utility doesn't want your solar system pumping electricity into the grid while workmen are trying to fix a downed transformer.
- Once the PTO's in hand, you're ready to flip the switch and start producing solar power. The project manager will still work with you for a few weeks, ensuring everything is up to your standards.
Through all this, the project manager and interconnection coordinator will be working closely with your team—keeping you posted, explaining complex or arcane rules, and helping you overcome any unforeseen obstacles.
The average solar installation process takes about 10 months to a year. A more complicated one can take longer. Once it's completed, your relationship with the solar company will likely continue throughout the lifespan of your solar equipment—whether through product warranties or system operations and maintenance (O&M).
Meanwhile, your new relationship with the utility will be as a fellow generator of electricity. In most cases, you’ll be using net metering to help offset your energy costs. Regardless, your energy bills will be going down—and you'll be doing something good for our planet.