Sanders sees ‘revolution’ in energy

Bernie Sanders, Green Mountain Power

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, visits the Stafford Hill solar farm in Rutland on Friday and checked out a battery storage facility with Josh Castonguay, Green Mountain Power’s chief innovative executive. Photo by Alan Keays/VTDigger

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders stood outside a field filled with solar panels in Rutland and told 17-year-old Cameron Wilk that he was looking out at a revolution.

“When you’re my age, this is going to look obsolete, old-fashioned,” Sanders said Friday afternoon to Wilk at the site of Green Mountain Power’s Stafford Hill solar farm.

“This is the future,” the independent senator from Vermont said just a few feet away from 7,700 solar panels. “It’s going to become more efficient, the country is going to move to sustainable energy.”

“This is pretty revolutionary stuff,” Sanders told Wilk, a senior at Rutland High School.

“Yes it is,” Wilk replied.

Sanders has used that term before. Kicking of his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in Burlington in May 2015 the senator called for a “political revolution.”

He almost beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the nomination, powered by a message that included reversing income equality, providing universal health care, and boosting the minimum wage.

Sanders traveled to Rutland on Friday to tour GMP’s operations and a cutting-edge solar storage project.

The visit was part of a two-day series of events the senator held across Vermont on Thursday and Friday. The tour featured several town hall meetings in several locations, including St. Johnsbury, Springfield and Randolph, drawing large and boisterous crowds along the way.

In Rutland, his stop was a much more toned-down affair, as he mingled and posed for photos for GMP employees at the utility’s Post Road facility. Instead of speechifying behind a podium, Sanders shook hands and answered questions as he walked around the facility.

Workers showed him the latest technology inside GMP’s command center before the senator donned his winter coat and headed out to visit the solar farm a couple miles away.

“This is just a real-time representation of the transmission system in the state of Vermont,” Matthew Ethier of Green Mountain Power told Sanders as they looked at displays depicting the utility’s power system.

Should a thunderstorm roll through and knock out electric service to customers, Ethier said he would watch it all play out right in front of him.

“Sometimes we get crews there even before a call,” he said.

The senator walked around the solar site with GMP’s Mary Powell, the utility’s CEO. They were joined by about three dozen people, including a retinue of reporters, a few high school students, and GMP employees.

The Stafford Hill solar farm has the ability to produce 2.5 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power 2,000 homes, according to utility officials. The project also provides for 4 megawatts of battery storage.

The solar panels and battery storage system is set up as a “microgrid.” That, utility officials said, allows it to serve as a backup power source for an emergency shelter at nearby Rutland High School.

The microgrid is able to disconnect from the larger electricity grid during outages, allowing electricity from the solar panels and batteries to power the shelter.

And, as GMP stores more and more solar energy, through the state-of-the-art control systems the utility is able to tap into that storage at times of high demand and avoid having to pay the expensive cost of electricity during peak period.

‘That’s the thing with storage, it’s amazingly flexible,” said Josh Castonguay, GMP’s chief innovative executive. “It provides us a ton of value.”

Powell, the utility’s CEO, said during periods of peak demand the utility can tap into that solar storage.

“Most of what they’re going to call on, actually probably all of it, is going to be fossil-fired fuel generators, that can come on in a minute, fire up those engines, spew out all that carbon, and they’re also higher cost,” she said.

“We’re saying, Oh, my gosh,’ we can use storage that’s powered by solar and provide that same benefit.”

Sanders said he has seen GMP come a long way since he started following the utility.

“I can remember way back when, when Green Mountain Power was a very, very conservative corporation, much more concerned about their profits than the needs of their customers or the environment,” Sanders said. “That has changed.”

He talked of Vermont leading the way in New England with solar production and the capacity to store the power that it creates.

“So, the day is going to come when solar is going to be able to provide electricity for us 24 hours a day,” Sanders said. “That is revolutionary and that is extraordinary.”

Alan J. Keays

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