Xcel fined $1M for delays connecting solar to grid

Source: By Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, January 25, 2021

Minnesota regulators fined the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy Inc., $1 million in response to more than 100 complaints filed by a solar installer in 2019 over delays getting rooftop projects plugged into the grid.

The Public Utilities Commission voted 3-2 on Thursday to assess the fine. Xcel acknowledged delays connecting solar projects and other issues with its interconnection process but said it has taken steps to address problems and urged regulators not to impose the fine.

While there’s ongoing tension over interconnection processes among utilities and solar developers nationwide, the PUC decision represents a rare example of regulators holding utilities accountable for missed deadlines and other problems, said Sky Stanfield, an attorney representing the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, a clean energy nonprofit that was a party in the case.

“It sends the message to Xcel, and specifically Xcel shareholders, that they need to do better,” Stanfield said in an interview.

Minneapolis-based Xcel said it respects the commission’s decision “and will continue to work with all parties to make the interconnection process smooth and successful for our customers and the solar industry, and to ensure the safety and reliability of our system.”

“We look forward to working with industry stakeholders to refine and bring greater transparency to the complaint process,” the utility said.

St. Paul-based All Energy Solar, one of the state’s largest residential solar installers, filed 128 complaints against Xcel in December 2019 that exceeded a threshold for customer complaints and triggered a $1 million penalty under a previously approved quality-of-service tariff.

“This shows a systemic failure in the provision of quality of service,” Brian Allen, vice president of All Energy Solar, told regulators during last week’s hearing.

The concerns were echoed by the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association. The group’s executive director, David Shaffer, said none of the problems was crippling. Instead, installers have dealt with systemic hiccups getting projects online.

“It is the aggregation of slight delays here, applications getting kicked out there, challenges with uploading documents to the portal” and other issues that have led to “industrywide exasperation,” Shaffer told commissioners.

Xcel files an annual quality of service report with the PUC that covers a variety of metrics, from how quickly calls to its customer service call center are answered to the reliability of electric service. The utility is subject to a $1 million fine if the number of complaints exceeds a certain threshold.

Xcel contended that the solar interconnection complaints, because they were filed by a single developer, shouldn’t count as 128 individual complaints that would trigger a fine. The utility argued that interconnection complaints should be handled through a separate process and not the broader quality of service review.

While the PUC was split on whether to levy the fine, Stanfield, the renewable energy council attorney, said regulators sent a message in its action that solar customers should be treated no differently from other customers.

“Commissioners each affirmed that interconnection is a customer service that a utility is expected to provide and provide in a reasonable manner,” she said.