New coalition gives solar developers a voice at RTOs, FERC

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The policy landscape around solar continues to change and evolve as the industry grows, and has shifted under the Trump Administration. While the areas of the greatest action have long been state-level policies, there are new conflicts over the future of wholesale markets.

This means that the political needs of the industry are changing. And whereas many national renewable energy groups have long been focused on lobbying Congress – particularly around tax policies – it is a different skill set to intervene in the complex regulatory decisions at regional grid operators and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

 

Solar RTO Coalition

A new organization has stepped in to fill that role. In April 2018 law firm Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough got together with a group of utility-scale developers and finance companies to form the Solar RTO Coalition, with attorney Steven Shparber representing the group before regional transmission organizations (RTOs) and FERC.

The organization is currently engaged on issues of fuel security and capacity market design, and has already submitted comments on PJM Interconnections’ proposal to modify its capacity market payments.

Solar RTO Coalition is also providing regulatory market intelligence to its members, and has worked on site control issues in PJM. “It doesn’t sound big and sexy, but it is important to solar developers, and developers in general,” Shparber told pv magazine.

In addition to all of this, Solar RTO Coalition votes on behalf of its members in RTO proceedings. Shparber notes that PJM alone has thousands of members, but that only around 20% of them vote in the organization, and says this number is probably even lower for renewable energy developers.

 

Another trade group?

In making its comments regarding PJM’s proposal, Solar RTO Coalition made comments along with other trade organizations including Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) and American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE).

The existence of this alphabet soup of existing trade groups brought us to ask Solar RTO Coalition’s members why another organization was needed.

“Increasingly we found that the voice of utility-scale solar developers and independent power producers was lacking in shaping regional market policies at FERC and at grid operators,” explains Matthew Crosby, policy director at Solar RTO Coalition member Coronal Energy.

Mark Marion, senior VP of the projects group at Juwi Americas, also noted that he feels that existing trade groups are not always prioritizing the needs of utility-scale developers. “Broadly speaking the other solar organizations are looking at net metering and small DG systems, and that takes up a lot of the agenda of that advocacy,” stated Marion.

This is not to say that existing trade organizations have ignored FERC, and SEIA President and CEO Abigail Hopper has told pv magazine that she is interested in the organization having an increased presence in these arenas. However for much of the last year SEIA has been fully engaged with trade battles and other matters, and the organization only recently posted an opening for a new VP of federal affairs who is likely to lead such work.

Charles Koontz, Coronal’s director of transmission and storage strategy, also emphasized the importance of having early involvement in the work that is being done at grid operators. “It’s absolutely critical that we understand how our solar projects and storage projects interact with rules of the road,” explains Koontz. “We need to make sure that we are at the table as those rules are written, so that they accommodate the full capabilities and the unique attributes that solar and storage bring.”
However, he also explained this is extremely challenging for any one company to do. “I was left with the daunting task of sifting through thousands of pages of proposed rules,” notes Koontz. “Through the coalition, we can watch for a subset of proceedings, and weigh in strategically where we think we can have a positive impact.”

 

Regulation in the Trump era

Solar RTO Coalition members were candid with pv magazine that while the solar industry’s role is changing, some of the need for this coalition comes from changes at FERC under the Trump Administration. “We are concerned about the politicization at FERC, and how that impacts markets,” Coronal’s Crosby told pv magazine.

“Frankly we are a troubled that the latest nominee reportedly faced a litmus test in terms of support for nakedly political efforts to prop up coal and nuclear power… it is very telling that before Powelson’s departure, FERC unanimously rejected the bailout on the grounds of lack of sufficient supporting evidence, and yet the effort continues.”

Crosby emphasized that in this environment, it is critical that the solar industry is able to “show up and have a voice.”

Right now much of Solar RTO Coalition’s work is focused on action in PJM Interconnection, where Shparber worked as lead in-house attorney for nearly four years before joining Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough. However, as companies like Coronal operate in dozens of states, the coalition is also looking at other grid operators, including CAISO, MISO and New York ISO.

As this happens the coalition is growing, and added its ninth member, developer Urban Grid, in the past month.