Minnesota solar-energy developers said their proposed projects â€” from rooftop arrays to community solar gardens â€” are suffering long delays at the hands of Xcel Energy, hurting customers and investors alike.
One solar developer has filed more than 120 complaints with state public utility regulators against Xcel, which could lead to a $1 million fine against the stateâ€™s largest electric utility. Xcel, while acknowledging some holdups, is contesting the fine.
The quarrel stems from a 2019 standard that Xcel, the solar industry and clean-energy groups all hoped would improve the stateâ€™s â€śinterconnectionâ€ť process.
Developers said Xcelâ€™s management of the process has led to monthslong delays in getting projects connected to the electricity grid.
â€śItâ€™s been pretty abysmal,â€ť said David Shaffer, executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association. In some instances, â€ścustomers have dropped projects.â€ť
Xcel rejects criticism that it is continually slow in moving solar projects along.
â€śWe are largely on time or close to on time,â€ť said Kerry Klemm, Xcelâ€™s manager of renewable choice programs. â€śMost projects go very well, but there are some exceptions.â€ť
The Minnesota Department of Commerce, which represents consumers in matters before utility regulators, in a regulatory filing agreed with developers that Xcel â€śbotchedâ€ť the rollout of the new interconnection process.
Minnesota has three main types of solar power: large projects contracted directly with big utilities; smaller â€ścommunity solar gardensâ€ť created by independent developers; and even smaller individual residential and commercial arrays, often on rooftops.
Xcel administers the state-mandated Community Solar Garden program, which consists of over 300 projects that together generate the majority of the stateâ€™s solar power.
â€śThere is a lot of [solar power] that we have successfully brought on line,â€ť Klemm said.
The addition of each new solar project must be studied for its effects on the overall electric grid. â€śItâ€™s important that we ensure the safety and reliability of everyone who is using the system,â€ť Klemm said.
The solar developersâ€™ dissatisfaction is rooted in how Xcel is administering the Minnesota Distribution Interconnection Process, which was rolled out in mid-2019. Under the new agreement, the utility is now considering most solar projects one at a time, not simultaneously.
But developers said the amount of time Xcel has devoted to projects at the front of the line of has caused a backup â€” and thus longer waits â€” for community solar gardens and new residential and commercial solar arrays.
St. Paul-based Novel Energy Solutions is measuring its solar garden interconnection agreement delays â€śin years and months, not days or weeks,â€ť the developer said in a filing with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
Novel said it has spent â€śtens of thousandsâ€ť of dollars in development costs, along with paying workersâ€™ salaries and interest on refundable deposits to Xcel.
â€śWe still have all of our costs, but none of our revenue,â€ť the company said.
Michael Allen, president of St. Paul-based All Energy Solar, said â€śhundreds of our projectsâ€ť have been delayed by Xcelâ€™s management of the new interconnection process, costing the company â€śwell into the six figures.â€ť
All Energy Solar is one of the stateâ€™s largest residential solar installers. In December, it filed 128 PUC complaints on behalf of individual customers against Xcel over interconnection delays, accusing the utility of â€śsystemic failure.â€ť
In a recent filing with the PUC, Xcel said that it has since resolved All Energyâ€™s complaints.
â€śThey were largely due to glitches in the processing of applications through our online system,â€ť Klemm said.
But the delays go beyond All Energy, according to the Minnesota solar association. The industry group said in a PUC filing said that All Energyâ€™s complaints â€śunderrepresent the industryâ€™s frustrationâ€ť with Xcelâ€™s interconnection practices.
The association pointed to Xcelâ€™s most recent quarterly community solar update â€” filed in July â€” to illustrate the problem: 80 projects, or 60% of those waiting in Xcelâ€™s interconnection queue, are â€śon hold.â€ť That means they are â€śsitting idlyâ€ť instead of being studied or developed, according to the group.
Xcel said it has improved the process since July and that the number of community solar-garden projects on hold was roughly 35% on Sept. 2.
Also, Xcel said in recent months it has significantly reduced the time needed to approve interconnection agreements for smaller residential and commercial projects.
The PUC continues to discuss the new interconnection process with Xcel, energy companies and clean-power groups. Meanwhile, All Energyâ€™s complaints to the PUC have become an issue in themselves.
The avalanche of complaints hurt Xcelâ€™s 2019 â€śquality of service plan,â€ť a report filed annually by Minnesota utilities that chronicles customer beefs with everything from outages to bills.
The grievances from All Energy put Xcel over its allowed threshold of 363 complaints for 2019, which could trigger the $1 million fine.
Xcel argues the complaints should not count toward its service-quality plan; the plan was never intended to include interconnection issues, which have their own review process.
In a PUC filing, the Minnesota Department of Commerce agreed with Xcel, and said there was no indication that Xcelâ€™s customers were harmed. The agency recommended against the $1 million fine, though it said Xcel â€śshould be held accountableâ€ť for fumbling the rollout of the new interconnection process.
Solar developers disagree that customers werenâ€™t harmed and that Xcel shouldnâ€™t be fined. The PUC will ultimately decide the issue.
Developers said interconnection delays wonâ€™t stop until there is some sort of financial penalty.
â€śThere has to be some sort of stick involved to makes sure Xcel does what it is supposed to do,â€ť said Shaffer of the solar association.