Navigant Research Blog

Changing Building Codes Are the Latest Proof of the Distributed Energy Revolution

Adam Forni — March 8, 2018

The distributed energy resources (DER) revolution is underway, and there are signs all around us. Readers of this blog have seen discussion of distributed PV, energy storage, microgrids, and similar technologies grabbing ever wider bandwidth in trade journals, social media, and popular news outlets.

Building codes just may be the latest proof of the dramatic shift to distributed energy. The 2017 version of the National Electrical Code (NFPA 70), the most widely adopted electrical construction standard on the planet, has a total of five new articles (or sections)—and four of those five are directly related to DER, as shown in the table below. Since the code’s key purpose is for electrical safety and fire protection, the addition of these articles reflects the need for setting safety standards among these fast-deploying technologies.

The addition of four articles is significant. Over its 120-year history, the code had accumulated eight articles related to DER (including generators, fuel cell systems, EVs, and the like), so this adds a notable 50% increase. Watch for changes to existing articles and more hybridized, interactive DER, and standard DER-related articles in subsequent versions.

New Articles Added to the National Electrical Code 2017

(Source: National Electrical Code)

Going beyond Code Requirements

Beyond just making safe and code-compliant equipment, DER vendors need to proactively address the concerns of building officials, fire marshals, and other authorities charged with protecting public safety. Since many codes are updated on a 3-year cycle—an eternity in the current wave of innovation—some products are invented and may have multiple generations before technical committees can officially weigh in. This author has heard an initially skeptical building official consider approving a fuel cell on a parking structure express concerns with “the thermal power plant on the roof” (the project was approved). Lithium ion battery storage installers (and lead-acid before them) have spent years educating fire officials on safety measures and operating procedures for their equipment. Vendors of newer technologies often learn from those that went before. But in most cases a proactive, trailblazer approach pays dividends.

One example of a DER technology overcoming safety concerns is the case of distributed PV in California. While not strictly building code related, California’s Rule 21 interconnection requirements were recently significantly updated to reflect growing trust of grid-tied inverters like those used in PV systems. Whereas inverters were formerly required to immediately shut off at the slightest sign of grid trouble or outage (for safety reasons), new smart inverters are allowed and able to stay operational under a much wider set of circumstances. This was as much a function of increased trust of the technology as it was a need to not have megawatts worth of generation going offline after each slight blip in frequency or voltage.

Industry Recommendations

Codes and similar regulations are important—they can encourage or limit technology deployment, effect installation costs, and even determine the number of hours a system can provide usable power (e.g., California’s Rule 21 for PV). Thus, it pays for vendors to take an active approach in educating city officials and first responders, and to be active in code development cycles. The relative infancy of the DER revolution means more growing pains likely lay ahead. Since DER are not yet truly ubiquitous, a proactive approach by vendors is a wise investment.

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