By connecting renewable generation to smart energy storage systems that are swarm controlled as part of a VPP, we can enable the next step in grid intelligence and help support the energy transition.

Solar Integrators and Utilities Need to Work in Tandem to Improve Grid Stability

Q&A with Geoff Ferrell, Vice President of Virtual Power Plant (VPP) and Commercial & Industrial | sonnen

Tell us about yourself and your role with sonnen.

My background is in engineering by education. I then accidentally fell in love with construction and the built environment and was fortunate to get to learn Building Science, through an innovative residential home builder in Arizona. That opportunity allowed me to apply my education to become a leader in developing and implementing a blueprint for smart energy building and promoting our many innovations and accomplishments to groups around the country. As the Vice President of Virtual Power Plants (VPP) and Commercial & Industrial at sonnen, I lead a cross functional team focused on implementing clean energy residential and commercial VPP projects and programs using solar plus storage, which is an essential part of maturing our infrastructure into the grid. At sonnen we are working to build fleets of VPP-connected projects that are innovative, accessible, and easily replicated in new and retrofit communities around the country.  


Describe some challenges current solar models pose for grid health and energy supply/stability, and how to overcome them?

  • Fossil fuel and nuclear plants are inflexible, with extended shut-down, cool-down, and ramp-up times. Still, newer plants can be made more flexible by combining technology and improved practices. Solar alone does not help address the need for increased speed and flexibility of these base load facilities.

  • Solar power is produced only when the sun shines, making it an intermittent source of energy that grid operators cannot easily control. Energy from the sun may be more robust in some places, and the proper transmission infrastructure may not always be in place in all locations. Therefore, utilities have to plan around these erratic renewables , which in some cases requires  increased infrastructure and leads to overall higher costs that ultimately impact the rate payer.

  • Energy production capacity, or supply, is dependent on when power plants are running. Conventional “peaker” plants are needed to fill the gap when there is a shortage of power. Traditional power plants sometimes don’t run as often as they could because of the high loads during peak hours. The solution to these issues is to match energy supply and demand using flexible dispatchable plants to appropriate transmission access and allow energy to be shared more fluidly within and between grid regions.

  • As with supply, demand can be managed if customers are willing to shift their load or grid energy usage, which is hugely beneficial during high peak demand times of day. Batteries can manage power stored onsite to energize loads without pulling new energy from the grid, thus lowering overall grid demand and providing an extended usefulness for solar. In the long run, battery storage systems will also allow excess power from the grid during non-peak times to be absorbed when it is low in cost and shared or used when it is more valuable. As a result, concentrated solar plants that include batteries, or VPPs, can provide access to stored solar energy 24-hours a day.


To date, how would you assess the interaction and cooperation between utilities and the residential solar owner and integrator.

By allowing consumers to actively participate in a market where they typically only purchase energy, they can become part of the system and provide energy in a way that benefits them and the marketplace and get paid for it. With the collaboration of the utility companies, sonnen can facilitate and optimize a bi-directional transactional grid system while maximizing the benefits that the batteries provide to both residential solar owners and the utility. We can accomplish this by managing the energy output hours, and selling and trading energy supply. 


Why is grid-interactive and responsive solar the next steps in creating the grid of the future and how do batteries play a role?

By connecting renewable generation to smart energy storage systems that are swarm controlled as part of a VPP, we can enable the next step in grid intelligence and help support the energy transition. The battery specifically is the vehicle for this flexibility and is critical in harnessing solar, a traditionally erratic and non-dispatchable asset. By controlling the storage or dispatch of the clean energy harnessed at individual homes with our battery and VPP management software, we can help utilities make better functional and economic use of renewable energy and enable utility customers to directly participate in their community’s energy future.


What role does the retrofit market for existing solar installations play versus new build solar?

Retrofitting homes, apartment complexes or commercial facilities with solar + storage technologies is much faster than new construction. It decreases carbon emissions from existing communities and reduces reliance on peaking fossil fuel-based power plants by playing a role in mitigating daily grid load during peak periods. Addressing the millions of existing solar assets on the grid today is key to speeding the energy transition and making the existing built environment a better energy steward. Alternatively, new construction is very important, too. Intentionally designing with renewable generation and smart energy storage as part of the infrastructure helps speed the energy transition while demonstrating the benefits of a clean energy blueprint that helps combat climate change.


What are some success stories in encouraging/incentivizing residents to take advantage of solar+ models and what players are critical to expanding this early trend?

One of our great successes was a pilot led by sonnen and Rocky Mountain Power (RMP) via the Wattsmart Battery Program. sonnen launched the Soleil Lofts residential complex with built-in VPP in Herriman, UT, in 2019 with a partnership with RMP and The Wasatch Group, a real estate development, and management company. Today, RMP dispatches the community’s 4.5 MW of renewable energy based instantly dispatchable power and 12.6 MWhs of capacity MWh of networked sonnen smart battery systems during periods of peak demand to optimize the electric grid and provide dynamic grid services, including frequency response. In total, Soleil Lofts represents an all-electric 600-unit apartment community that operates almost entirely on self-generated solar that is stored and managed to be grid harmonized through sonnen batteries and the proprietary sonnenVPP software. The Wattsmart Program was expanded by RMP in 2020 and now provides an upfront incentive plus compensation for grid services to individual solar + energy storage homeowners across Utah and Idaho.

About Geoff Ferrell
Geoff Ferrell is the Vice President of Virtual Power Plant (VPP) and Commercial & Industrial at sonnen. Geoff has a nearly 20-year career in residential technology and a background in energy management and environmental building practices. He was essential in pioneering the first residential solar plus storage sonnen master-planned communities in the U.S. and has received the DOE Housing Innovation award several times.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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