As some members of the SunSpec Alliance have predicted, Distributed Energy Resource (DER) interconnection rules will soon require that DER systems communicate bi-directionally with utility networks. While this trend has been slow to materialize—thus enabling utility companies, fleet operators, and manufacturers to effectively ignore the issue for a period longer than what might be considered is healthy—it is real and its effects are profound. The change will expand the grid supportive capabilities of DER systems and bring the Internet revolution to the energy business.

Hawaii and California Go First

The first regions to mandate communication capabilities are the U.S. states of Hawaii and California, via Hawaii interconnection Rule 14H and California interconnection CA Rule 21 respectively. Interconnection rules or regulatory guidelines exist in most U.S. states and generally govern the interconnection of DER assets to distribution grids.

Hawaii regulators felt compelled to rework their Rule 14H interconnection regulation first in order to support the success of the state’s roof-top solar program and resulting 20%+ grid penetration. Two-way communication became permissible last year, is now wide spread, and can be used to monitor and control a variety of advanced inverter functions.

The CA Rule 21 revision effort started slightly later than Hawaii’s but is having an even bigger impact. For example, in addition to serving the largest market in the U.S., the regulators of Hawaii have declared that CA Rule 21 is being used to refine their Rule 14H. The revision of the IEEE 1547 standard, lead by the same individuals who developed CA Rule 21, is largely informed by this work. (IEEE 1547 is the standard that specifies interconnection criteria for the entire U.S. and is generally considered to be the foundation of state interconnection rules and guidelines.)

In a decision that came out last month, California regulators adopted the recommendations of the California Smart Inverter Working Group (a volunteer group chartered by state regulators to drive the CA Rule 21 revision) pertaining to “Phase 2” communication recommendations. This ruling states that no later than one year after the ratification of UL 1741 SA, all new inverters must be “communication capable.” UL 1741 SA is going to ballot and its ratification is expected this summer—so the clock is ticking.

The new ruling also stipulates that California investor-owned utilities must follow the recommendations of the “communication handbook.” This handbook is being developed by the utilities with support from the SunSpec Alliance and other industry participants. It is noteworthy that the California communication handbook identifies IEEE 2030.5 (a.k.a. “SEP2”) as the default communication protocol. The IEEE 2030.5 DER information models are based on the SunSpec inverter information models specified for CA Rule 21 and are therefore compatible with SunSpec Certified inverters that have implemented the SunSpec models. The SunSpec Alliance is also an official IEEE “Standards Association” member and sits on the IEEE 2030.5 technical committee where we are charged with maintaining compatibility with other communication standards.

Going Global

While the effort to integrate DER with utility communication networks is most advanced in the U.S., the trend is global. Our partners at the University of Ulm (Germany) recently apprised us of the European Union’s “Project OrPHEuS” and their use of SunSpec inverter communication specifications in their demonstration site http://www.orpheus-project.eu/demo-sites/ulm.html. National research labs in Austria (AIT), Italy (RSE), and Japan (FREA), along with Sandia and NREL in the U.S., have also adopted SunSpec information models and communication interfaces, setting the stage for global proliferation and adoption.

What It Means for the SunSpec Alliance and the Industry

Large-scale, two-way, utility-to-independent-operator communication will occur first in the DER market sector. This means that DER operators, in partnership with utilities, are the best candidates to lead the build up of communication networks and their attendant security systems for the entire energy industry.

If we do this well as an industry, the result will be higher quality delivery of our primary service (i.e. kWh). It will also mean the development of new revenue streams (i.e. ancillary services), higher profit margins due to higher availability and higher predictability, and a reputation for delivering smart energy when and where it is needed. The opportunity is enormous for the SunSpec Alliance member ecosystem if we can execute.