State plans $15 mil for new energy lab

If Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has his way, Burlington could become the nation’s capital for energy research.

Sandia National Laboratories is partnering with the Vermont state government, Green Mountain Power and Vermont businesses to establish a $15 million Center for Energy Transformation and Innovation to be housed on the UVM campus.

“Historically, when you have a lab in a community, it provides an intellectual infrastructure that provides for economic growth, new start-ups and job opportunities,” Sanders said. “The goal is to see Vermont become cutting-edge in terms of research and development.”

The Center will focus on energy efficiency, exploring renewable energy sources, economic development and the implementation of smart grid technology, a University Communications press release stated.

But what, exactly, is smart grid technology, and why does Vermont need it?

Huck Gutman, a former UVM English professor and the current chief of staff for Sanders, said it is a computer-based class of technology that ensures automation, communication and efficiency between appliances.

The result, he said, is that it can be helpful for giving consumers both greater control over their household energy needs and even the possibility of generating their own electricity.

In effect, Vermont will become the first state in New England to house an energy research lab, a vtdigger.org article stated.

“It was surprising to the Senator and I that New England, which is known as a place of intellectual and scientific inquiry, did not have an energy center of its own when there are approximately 21 scattered around the nation,” Gutman said.

Both Gutman and Sanders believe that the Center offers the possibility of creating new jobs for Vermonters, and that it will provide a number of educational benefits to UVM students.

“As a nation, it is no great secret that we are lagging behind many countries in areas like math, science and engineering,” Sanders said. “I hope the presence of this lab will create a wave of excitement on campus and get students more interested in these fields because they will see the practical applications of what Sandia is doing.”

Although plans for the Center were put on hold for two years, it became a reality in 2011 when Vermont received a grant from the Department of Energy for $69.8 million to promote state wide conversion to smart grid technology, Gutman said.

Stephanie Holinka, who works for Sandia, said that UVM collaborated with Sandia in the past when nine students and eight faculty members participated in an Electric Power Fellowship Program.

“Already, researchers from Sandia have given short courses and seminars at UVM on issues related to energy and grid modernization,” she said. “This past summer, students and faculty from UVM came to Sandia’s facility in New Mexico to participate in original research.”

Both Sandia and Sander’s administration believe that the Center will not only expose UVM students to leaders in the industry, but that it will also give them the opportunity to do “cutting-edge” research in a field that is still largely unexplored.

The Center will also research the possible cyber security issues that can accompany smart grid technology, Gutman said.  These issues range from personal information leaks to even tampering with state or national security.

“The big problem is how to make it secure,” said Gutman. “So why not do research on it and try to show the country how to move forward with this.”

If the Center proves to be a successful venture, UVM could become a major institution for understanding both how sustainable energy technologies are used and their relationship to the average consumer.