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DOE announces $30M in funding for solar integration projects

Attempting to drive the peak penetration level of solar power on the U.S. grid to 50% by 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it will provide $30 million in funding to 13 technology projects focused on hardware and software to integrate and manage high levels of distributed solar installations.

Announced Jan. 31 at the DistribuTech conference in San Diego, the funding will be managed under the SunShot Initiative, the DOE's multiyear program to accelerate the adoption of solar power at the utility and the rooftop scales.

The projects will "develop next-generation grid planning and operation tools," according to the DOE press statement, that harness real-time forecasting, data analytics, distributed sensor networks and sophisticated software tools to ensure a reliable and stable power supply that relies heavily on solar photovoltaic installations.

The projects fall into two categories, according to Charles Gay, director of the SunShot initiative: nearer-term efforts, led by utilities, that will produce commercial or near-commercial components to integrate distributed energy resources onto the grid; and longer-term R&D programs, mostly carried out by universities and national laboratories, targeting "innovations around the grid, where those kinds of links might be self-regulating or self-optimizing, integrating the 25 billion appliances expected to come online in next decade or so," Gay said in an interview at DistribuTech.

Among the selected projects is a team at Advanced Microgrid Solutions that is developing a software platform to optimize the dispatch of distributed energy resources, including solar installations, electric vehicles, energy storage and demand-side management programs, using a $3.2 million DOE award. PPL Corp. subsidiary PPL Electric Utilities Corp. is preparing a 500-customer pilot that will deploy multilayer device and communications architecture "that bridges the gap between existing and future technologies by monitoring, controlling, and optimizing a high penetration of solar generation," according to the SunShot website. The company received $3.3 million.

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories are building an open-source software platform for distributed energy resource management that "provides real-time visibility into distribution circuits and optimizes the active and reactive settings to meet voltage regulation, protection, and economic objectives in the presence of forecast uncertainty." The lab received $2.5 million.

Launched in 2011, the SunShot Initiative aims to make solar power as cheap as conventional power generation by 2020. According to a June 2016 report from GTM Research, power from utility-scale solar farms will fall below $1 per watt by that time, beating the DOE's stated target price.

Close to half of the power generation capacity being built today is at the utility scale of 500 MW or above, said Gay, but "the rest is residential rooftop and it's all distributed. This program is about the distribution network, making good use of what we already have as opposed to building new stuff. We already have the wires, and we can get the electrons where we need them with sensors and software [operating] in a feedback loop."

The DOE grants will be combined with funding from the companies and institutions carrying out the projects. The final funding and cost share amounts are "subject to change pending negotiations," the DOE said.