Minnesota businesses and residents have a strong desire for solar, an affordable and zero carbon source of electricity—and the science shows that rooftop solar and other smaller installations are an important ingredient in decarbonizing our electricity system. Unfortunately, many solar projects stall at the point when they require utility involvement to connect to the grid.
On January 21, 2021, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) made a strong statement that utilities must do better, voting to fine Xcel Energy $1 million for the company’s poor service to solar customers in 2019. The PUC also created new reporting requirements to track service improvement and directed Xcel to work with stakeholders to develop a dispute resolution process for smaller projects. This decision affirms important customer rights and should accelerate improvements for Xcel customers interested in going solar.
When a home or business owner wants to install solar or another clean energy technology on their property, they must get approval from their utility through a process called interconnection. Minnesota adopted new statewide interconnection standards in 2019 that modernized and streamlined this process for customers, developers and utilities. (Read more about Fresh Energy’s role in that process here.) Unfortunately, customers of our largest utility, Xcel Energy, have faced a host of challenges over the past 18 months when trying to install solar on their homes and businesses, including acute delays, lack of communication, and recurring malfunctions in Xcel’s online portal. The PUC’s Consumer Affairs Office received 129 complaints about Xcel’s rooftop solar interconnection service in 2019. As a result, Xcel exceeded the threshold for customer complaints under their Quality of Service Plan – a threshold that comes with a $1 million fine.
The PUC met on January 21, 2021, to determine how to count the complaints and whether to apply the fine. At the hearing, the Commission:
- Unanimously affirmed that customers with on-site generation, like solar, deserve the same level of customer service for their generation resources as they do for purchasing electricity.
- Confirmed that solar installers can advocate on their customer’s behalf in the complaint process, which is important given the complexity of interconnection rules and the regulatory process.
- Created new tracking and reporting requirements that will improve transparency and the ability to ensure progress is made.
- Directed Xcel to work with stakeholders to develop a new problem-resolution process for customer-sited projects and smaller process challenges.
This decision is an important win for Xcel customers interested in distributed energy resources like solar, batteries, and electric vehicles and a testament to strong collaboration across groups committed to improving Minnesota’s interconnection process. The interconnection experts at Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) represented Fresh Energy, Vote Solar, and ELPC, and our coalition worked closely with the solar industry, customer advocates and the Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Participation from the primary solar developer involved, All Energy, was instrumental in bringing about this decision.
Accountability can be challenging to achieve in technical processes like interconnection, and the Commission’s decision will help ensure a better customer experience for the clean energy transition ahead.
Fresh Energy is actively working with Xcel, IREC, developers, and others to resolve other interconnection challenges – stay tuned for more updates this spring.