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Improving Distribution System Planning to Incorporate Distributed Energy Resources

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The Second Installment in SEIA's New Opportunities for Solar Through Grid Modernization Series. For the full series, click here

Built during the last century, the United States electric grid was primarily designed to transport electricity from large central station power plants to end-use customers. But with rapid growth of distributed energy resources, such as solar, resulting from falling costs and technological advances, customers are increasingly taking charge of their own energy. These resources offer the promise of a more innovative, economic, and cleaner electric grid. 

This is a future in which distributed energy resources (DERs), such as solar power, will play an important role providing power and grid services where they are needed most. To reach this goal, however, distribution grid planning must evolve from a largely closed process (a “black box”) to one which allows transparency into system needs, plans for distributed energy resources growth, and ensures that the capabilities of distributed energy resources are fully utilized. 

This paper is the second in SEIA's series on grid modernization and focuses on distribution planning and operations, which is foundational to various facets of grid modernization. We start by reviewing the utility distribution system planning process today and identify key processes and concepts. Next, we discuss how two leading states are attempting to modernize distribution planning to both plan for distributed energy resources as well as leverage their capabilities. 

About this Whitepaper Series

This series of SEIA policy briefs takes an in-depth look at state-level efforts to modernize the electric utility grid. Built during the last century, the United States electric grid was primarily designed to transport electricity from central station power plants to end-use customers. But with rapid growth of distributed energy resources such as solar, customers are increasingly taking charge of their own energy. Today’s electric grid must allow distributed energy technologies to flourish and provide reliable, low-cost power for consumers. Distributed energy resources, like solar, can also provide power where it is needed most and help avoid investments that a utility would otherwise need to make.

This series explores the elements of electric grid modernization, compares the ways in which two leading states are tackling these issues, and discusses how these efforts are creating new opportunities for solar power. Grid modernization efforts in states present significant risks and opportunities for solar. These efforts will determine how much new solar and other distributed energy resources can interconnect to the grid, identify areas where solar can provide grid services in lieu of utility investments, and in some states, will shape the future of net energy metering.