In a major shift, the MISO territory has 57 GW worth of big solar projects in its interconnection queue

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MISO (the Midcontinent Independent System Operator) rarely makes headlines in solar, compared to other wholesale markets — but that might be changing.

Despite being the the oldest and largest RTO — it lags far behind CAISO’s roughly 11 GW of solar capacity. However, if MISO’s 2020 queue of 57 GW worth of solar projects marked “active” is any indication, the territory could see record deployments in coming years.

Not all of these projects will see the light of day, for a number of reasons, but if only a fraction of them are built it would signal a major shift for a mostly wind-based MISO renewables market. More than one-quarter of the 200 GW of active projects in MISO’s 2020 generation queue are solar, but a little under half of them were projects proposed in the last year.

Today, there are only 314 MW of in-front of the meter solar throughout the entire MISO footprint, which equates to about 0.2% percent of MISO’s 174 GW generating capacity. In terms of solar, the market is slightly ahead of western neighbor Southwest Power Pool, yet still behind PJM’s more than 1,500 MW of big solar.

There are opportunities, considering the large MISO footprint compared to other markets, and a sun-rich south, should developers and utilities take a serious interest in deploying projects. Especially in the northern footprint, where a whopping 27.6 GW of solar, and 1.4 GW of storage are in the queue.

This is a striking amount of capacity — but without an affordable way of getting it to customers, it will never get built.

According to Clean Grid Alliance, nearly 5 GW worth of projects were scrapped in MISO West, after they were approved, due to exorbitant transmission upgrade costs. One of the biggest challenges in the MISO interconnection queue is transmission costs — and how they are allocated.

An already low average electricity cost-per-kWh for ratepayers remains a barrier for solar in MISO’s southern reach, and utilities in the south simply have not committed to renewable energy goals like those in the north. Utilities often drag their heels rather than pursue more renewables, and this can be a problem with planning as well.

“In the end, Entergy New Orleans’ 20 MW self-build solar project was only approved once the utility dropped the transmission tie from the project, and found a distribution-only solution,” noted Logan Burke from the Alliance for Affordable Energy. “It was the policy priority of the Council for local renewables that drove that project home.”

If numbers in the queue are an indication, MISO South utilities like Entergy and Cleco would be set to change their energy mix in coming years. Both Arkansas and Louisiana have up to 7 GW of solar projects, and roughly 500 MW of energy storage marked active in the queue.

Still, doubts remain. Entergy CEO Leo Denault indicated on Entergy’s 2019 third-quarter earnings call that the utility identified a need to build 5 GW to 7 GW of capacity in coming years. However, much of this capacity will be gas according to Entergy Corporation’s IRPs, and Denault only seemed to imply that it could be renewables. Currently Louisiana and Arkansas have only about 200 MW of solar combined.

Plans to remedy MISO’s infrastructure will be needed, as will greater grid flexibility and demand response to be able to handle intermittent solar energy. It remains to be seen how large solar and storage projects can be developed in MISO without the savings being eaten up by transmission improvements. To ensure the economic benefits accrue to the ratepayers who are paying for it, is a matter of careful planning and also the accountability of decision-makers, and utilities within MISO.

Still, the number of projects in the queue indicates a positive trend and a change in business-as-usual.

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Andy Kowalczyk has worked in Louisiana’s rooftop solar industry and advocates for the Louisiana renewable energy economy. He has been an active stakeholder in developing rules for a Renewable Portfolio Standard in New Orleans since July 2018, and has acted as an official intervenor for City Council proceedings on Community Solar, and Entergy New Orleans’ Triennial IRP. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.