Sandia Center at UVM will accelerate smart grid transition

Sen. Bernie Sanders. VTD/Josh Larkin
Sen. Bernie Sanders. VTD/Josh Larkin

Gov. Peter Shumlin credits Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for bringing a new multi-million dollar Center for Energy Transformation and Innovation to the state. Sanders was “like a dog with a bone” on the issue, recalled the governor at a joint press conference on Monday.

The project, a partnership between Sandia National Laboratories, the University of Vermont, Green Mountain Power and Vermont businesses, will create “a revolution in the way we are using power,” Shumlin predicts.

Over the next three years, the center will have up to $15 million to accelerate energy efficiency, move toward renewable and localized sources of energy, and make Vermont “the first state to have near-universal smart meter installations,” Sanders announced. Sandia will invest $3 million a year, Shumlin added, along with $1 million each from the Department of Energy and state coffers.

Sandia Vice President Rick Stulen, Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell, and UVM President John Bramley joined the two elected officials at Sanders’ office in downtown Burlington for the announcement.

For Sandia, the arrangement provides “a way to understand all of the challenges that face all states,” Stulen explained. Vermont’s size makes it more possible “to get something done,” he said, adding that considerable integration has already occurred with the university, private utilities and other stakeholders.

Vermont’s reputation for energy innovation recently attracted $69.8 million in US Department of Energy funding to promote rapid statewide conversion to smart grid technology. This has been matched, said Sanders, by another $69 million from Vermont utilities.

“We have to turn the grid from a one-way into a two-way street,” Stulen explained.

Another focus of the center will be to ensure reliable service. That means “anticipating any cyber challenges that may be opened up, or vulnerabilities that may be opened up as we move to this new future,” he said. “Sandia is very much in the forefront of cyber research.”

Beyond that, the center will also look into the implications of more electric vehicles and how to provide enough power to recharge them at night.

Sanders said that Vermont has already shown Sandia that its utilities can work together. Powell, the GMP executive, said Sanders’ chief of staff, Huck Gutman, helped to make the center a reality.

Joint efforts between GMP and Sandia began two years ago, Powell noted. The goal is to make Vermont “a national example of how to deploy smart grid technology across a state, along with renewable generation and really demonstrate that we can handle the security issues that come with that.”

One of those issues is that having numerous interactive devices on two-way networks creates new risks. According to Kenneth van Meter, manager of energy and cyber services for Lockheed Martin, “By the end of 2015 we will have 440 million new hackable points on the grid. Nobody’s equipped to deal with that today.”

Asked about such cyber threats, Stulen acknowledged that use of “more portals” creates more potential threats, but added that “we think this is a manageable situation. In fact, the benefits far outweigh the risks.”

In the category of benefits, Stulen pointed to the potential for lowering utilities bills by being able to monitor home energy use. But security issues will also be a focus. “We don’t see it as an overriding issue right now, but as a national laboratory our job is to anticipate the future,” he said.

Powell added that Vermont’s partnership with Sandia could increase its ability to deal with cyber security issues. “We are going to create a great example for the rest of the nation,” she said.

“The federal government has invested $4 billion in smart grid technology,” Sanders noted, “and they want to know that we’re going to work out some of the problems as other states follow us. So Vermont, in a sense, becomes a resource for other states to learn how to do it, how to overcome problems that may arise.

“In many ways, we are a laboratory for the rest of this country in this area,” Sanders continued. “And with Sandia’s help, I think we are going to do that job very effectively.”

The new center will be based at the UVM. Bramley, who became interim UVM president last August, said that collaborating with Sandia will have broad-ranging educational value through the state.

“We are the University of Vermont, we’re not the University of Burlington,” Bramley quipped. “Whilst we may have a center there, we are absolutely committed to being engaged throughout the state.”

Last summer, an exchange program was established between Sandia and the university, with nine students and several faculty members worked on smart grid-related project. The center has also offered short courses on smart grid modernization for Vermont utility staff, and energy-tech company management.

The last question at the press conference concerned the dispute in Burlington that erupted earlier this year over an agreement between the city and Lockheed Martin, which manages Sandia Labs for the Department of Energy. After months of study and debate, the City Council adopted a community standards resolution, largely in response to public criticism of the deal with Lockheed signed by Mayor Bob Kiss. Kiss vetoed the resolution.

Sanders challenged the description of Lockheed as “a parent company” of Sandia, and Stulen followed with what he called “some myth-busting.” All national laboratories are required to have “an oversight board provided by the private sector,” he said. “So, Lockheed Martin does provide oversight, but all of the work is done by Sandia National Laboratories and we’re careful to put firewalls in place between the laboratory and Lockheed Martin.”

Sandia was founded in 1949 and has roots in the Manhattan Project, which helped develop the atomic bomb during World War II. The company’s website describes its work during that period as “ordnance engineering,” which involved turning the nuclear innovations of the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs into functioning weapons.

Revenue figures indicate that most of Sandia’s revenue continued to come from maintaining nuclear weapons and assessing defense systems. Its primary headquarters is on Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, NM, where about 7,500 people are employed. The other big lab is in Livermore, CA, employing another 1,000. Known in the past as a “national security lab,” Sandia’s 21st century mission has expanded to include “security of the smart grid.”

A statement by Sanders released at the press conference notes that although the United States has 17 national labs doing “cutting edge research,” none of them are located in New England. That was what he hoped to change after visiting Sandia’s New Mexico headquarters in 2008.

“At the end of the day,” recalls Les Shephard, Sandia vice president for energy, resources and nonproliferation, “he turned to the laboratory director and said, ‘I’d really like to have a set of capabilities like Sandia in New England — and very much so in Vermont.’ And that’s how it all evolved.”

In January 2010 Sanders took the next major step – organizing a delegation of Vermonters to visit Sandia. The group included Green Mountain Power CEO Powell; Domenico Grasso, vice president for research at the University of Vermont; David Blittersdorf, co-founder of NRG Systems and CEO of Earth Turbines; and Scott Johnston, CEO of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, which runs Efficiency Vermont.

“It occurred to me,” Sanders recalled Monday, “that we have the potential to establish a very strong and positive relationship with Sandia here in the State of Vermont.” His hope is to make the current thee-year arrangement “a long-term presence” between the lab, UVM, utilities and other businesses.

“From an environmental, global warming and economic perspective, it is enormously important that we transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy,” Sanders said. “And working with Sandia and their wide areas of knowledge – some of the best scientists in the country – we hope to take a state that is already a leader in some of these areas even further.”

“This is a really exciting development for Vermont,” added Shumlin. “We have an extraordinary opportunity to show the nation how to use smart grid, how to use energy efficiency to save money for businesses, and for consumers. And how to insure that Vermont is the leader in getting off our addiction to oil.”

Shumlin added that people ask him how Vermont snagged so much money per capita for this project. The answer, he says, is the partnership that this new center will foster and represent. “It’s a huge opportunity and a huge accomplishment.”

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Greg Guma

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  • Mike Kerin

    Thanks Senator Sanders.
    I’ve had a solar array three and a half years now and it makes 120% of my power and the extra goes into the grid thanks to net metering. If more people did what I did we would be better off. Prices have come down sense I did mine. More solar will help.

  • There are some questions…
    Isn’t this corporate welfare?
    Also, this is in direct opposition to the idea of local, small, self-sustaining communities.
    Also, many across the country are opposing ‘smart meter’ technology.
    Some in Occupy Wall Street in Vermont have taken a stand against ‘smart meters’.
    Interesting – Sandia “…has roots in the Manhattan Project…”.

  • Arla Foster

    I agree, more solar will help so how about a multi-billion dollar project for the people of VT, to help take us off the grid? This deal seems like it has a lot more in it for corporate America and government than it does for the citizens of VT. I don’t want a Smart meter and I object to Sandia Laboratories becoming the “security of the smart grid.”

  • Diane Grenkow

    Finally I understand why Bernie Sanders is all for industrial scale wind in Vermont. Look at the company he’s been keeping!

    So now Vermont is going to have a “very strong” relationship with Sandia which makes its money from maintaining nuclear weapons. How green! Is it just me that finds this staggeringly unbelievable? I know it’s not the Vermont way to speak against Bernie and what he does but honestly — a strong relationship with Sandia?!

    Are we doing this for Vermont or are we doing this for other states? Do we want to be a guinea pig for the rest of the country? Do we really want to plug ourselves in with the military industrial complex that Sandia Labs represents?

    I attended the smart grid information workshop at the VECAN conference a few weeks ago and the panel was unable to tell us why the smart grid and smart metering is so important. The best we were told was that we would be able to monitor home energy use. A gentleman in the audience held up a device he had bought the day before to do just that. He asked what the difference was. No one could give him an answer beyond that it will give the utility companies information that they need. Everyone in the room had concerns about the “smart” grid — from health to security — and I left unconvinced that we are on the right path for getting off of fossil fuels.

    I am still unconvinced and I am shocked at how we are proceeding. We are blasting our ridgelines for millions in tax credits, partnering with Sandia for millions, and our governor says there’s no time for discussion, it all has to happen now. This is no way to “lead” the country into renewable energy — for big money no matter what the stakes and rushed and thoughtlessly.

  • We want Sustainable energy? Yes, we do. Our grid and infrastructure needs to upgraded that is true. Does smart grid offer a real solution to energy efficiency. That has yet to be shown, so far the smart grid only informs us of our energy usage, which anyone can already CHOOSE to do with their own investment- NYT article

    so why invest millions in this technology… and this “corporate person” who is managed by the number 1 lobbyist for nuclear weapons programs?

    Sandia Lobbying info 2002

  • How could Bernie do this to us? What is he thinking???

    What is the plan for when the ‘smart grid’ fails – or are we supposed to believe that this is a zero defects technology? (I am 74 years old. When I was growing up we NEVER had a power outage. Years went by – hurricanes came and went. The lights stayed on. Now the power goes out so often that those in my neighborhood with money have generators. Every time a squirrel walks on a line, the power goes out…. and then CVPS says they can’t get here from there because ALL of their repair vehicles are in the boondocks of Sunderland. I want a system that is as reliable as it was in 1947. Please – or else please get me a generator and a wind turbine – that’s all I want for Christmas………..)

  • I’ve got a lot of experience in renewable energy, and efficiency programs and can say without qualification that Smart meters are nothing but a tax-subsidized meter-upgrade that will ONLY benefit utilities.

    There are already lots of affordable private-sector home-energy-use monitoring options. And we’re not all going to go out and by a “smart” fridge for $4000 that saves us pennies here and there by operating its compressor when rates are cheaper at night. When your fridge needs to turn on to keep your food from spoiling, you really want it to wait 6 hours because the meter tells it to? This is a joke.

    The only real benefit of smart-meters is that meter-readers no longer are necessary, so power companies can LAY OFF lots of people and improve their bottom line. That’s it.

    Maybe that’s a value we should applaud, but it’s absolutely appalling that nearly $100 Million in tax-$ is being given to the utilities for this boondoggle, meanwhile the VT Clean Energy Development Fund that helps subsidize distributed wind and solar power is EMPTY WITH NO $ IN SIGHT.

    The worst thing about this boondoggle is that Smart-meters are being positioned by our “leaders” as a pre-requisite for being able to deploy lots of renewable energy installations. This is 100% BOGUS. Denmark and Germany have 20% of the power in their grid coming from distributed non-utility-owned renewable energy, (compared to less than 2% in VT) and they have NO smart-meters.

    PV-electricity production is almost perfectly predictable now, so power companies can easily plan their operations based on known predictable factors regarding how much power net-metered solar systems will be putting into the grid at any particular point. Smart-meters have a sliver of relevance to distributed solar in terms of production/load monitoring, but this is not at all necessary, because MOST EVERY PV system already has a web-connected data-monitoring system that homeowners could make accessible to utilities.

    Smart-meters are TOTALLY REDUNDANT and un-needed regarding solar power. And smart-meters have ABSOLUTELY NO CONNECTION to industrial wind and the issues that utilities have to manage re grid-load/supply.

    Yes our grid needs investments to enable massive deployment of large-scale utility-owned renewable energy, but that has NOTHING to do with residential “smart meters”. Distributed solar power on your property does not require a grid upgrade because the electron-flow is small, distributed and perfectly predictable.

    Large utility-owned wind or solar systems do require grid-upgrades, but again that has NOTHING to do with residential meters.

    Greg: you and I have common progressive-activists friends like Robin Llyod who sing your praises as a journalist and activist. But I have to question you: how is it possible that you don’t bring up ANY of these issues in your article? Your article reads like a press-release hot of the Sanders-PR machine-press, without a shred of critical analysis about the value-prop of smart-meters or any alternative perspective, which is disturbing.

  • Great comments here. Now if only we can get Bernie and the Governor to read them… and yes, how about some intelligent coverage of these issues in the Press. When I first brought up the issue of Smart Meters in Bennington, no one knew what I was talking about.

    Is there any way to recind the Sandia grant?

    Reminds me of what Assange said about war: “…just one damn thing after another…”

  • How can the grant to Sandia be recinded?

    Will the Vermont Press step up and help inform the public on this issue?

    Like Assange said about the war: “…it’s just one damn thing after another…”