Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Peter Shumlin announced a new, federally funded solar site in Williston on Monday designed to host experimental solar technology.
Sandia National Laboratories is responsible for management of the Williston location and four others across the nation – mostly in the south and southwest. The importance of the Vermont site, officials said, is that it will help the nation’s solar industry improve solar technology for cold weather areas.
Steven Rottler, Vice President at Sandia National Laboratories, said the new site will help push Vermont closer to its ambitious goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050.
“The Vermont RTC [Regional Testing Center] will enable research on integrating solar technology into Vermont’s statewide smart grid and will also provide data on solar photovoltaic systems operating in a climate with harsh winters and dramatic changes in weather throughout the year,” he said.
Weather patterns were in the spotlight at the announcement, as both Sanders and Shumlin emphasized the importance of alternative energy in staving off climate change.
“I’ve now managed five climate-change induced storms,” Shumlin said. “We’ve drawn down almost a billion dollars of federal emergency assistance and worked together through tremendous tragedy dealing with storm after storm that have plagued this state so no one knows better than Vermonters the need for us to move from our addiction to oil to other ways of powering the future.”
The new solar project is located on IBM’s Williston campus, and senior location executive Janet Bombardier says it will help the company’s continuing efforts to improve the predictability and reliability of alternative energy. Improved planning and predictions of the availability of solar power could help solar power become more useful to grid operators nationwide. IBM is already doing similar work with wind power in China.
One barrier to the success of solar energy has long been the high cost of manufacturing and installing the equipment, but Sanders said the cost of solar has “plummeted” in recent years. He said projects like the Williston one, that foster research and development in the industry, will only drive those costs lower.
“The technology is now becoming much, much more cost-effective and the goal of projects like this is to continue that progress,” Sanders said.
The new Sandia location is the fifth in the nation. There are other solar testing centers in New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Florida. Sandia predicts it will produce 300 kilowatts of electricity for Vermont once it is fully operational.
Rottler, the Sandia vice president, said the test center will begin producing power within a few months with others following.
Funding for the new center comes from the U.S. Department of Energy’s “SunShot” initiative, which is tasked with reducing the cost of solar energy 75 percent by 2020.
Min Lee, the director of SunShot for the Department of Energy, said the program has already made great progress, and the U.S. will pass 10 gigawatts of solar production this month.
“The cost of solar energy has fallen by more than 50 percent just in the past two and a half years,” he said. “We still have a ways to go, but we’ve achieved a lot.”