By Becka Gregory
November 7th, 2013
Monday marked the official opening of a photovoltaic testing center in Williston, one of five facilities in the United States and the only one in New England. Located at the IBM campus on Mountain View Road, the testing center will provide valuable data about the viability of photovoltaic systems, commonly called solar arrays, in the harsh winter conditions found in Vermont.
Heavily supported by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and Gov. Peter Shumlin, the regional testing facility is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot initiative, which aims to make solar energy cost-competitive with other forms of electricity by the end of the decade. The $3 million project was funded through the SunShot program and will be operational in the next few months, with solar manufacturers, selected through a highly competitive process, installing photovoltaic systems on site. The facility accommodates testing of up to 300 kilowatts of solar energy at any given time. Monitoring will be completed by Sandia National Laboratories, a federally funded research and development center located in Albuquerque, N.M.
Vermont was chosen to host the site due to its climate and existing commitment to alternative energy, as well as its “leadership and innovative solutions in cutting red tape,” according to Minh Le, program manager of the federal Solar Energy Technologies Program. Vermont also presents the unique opportunity to test integration with a statewide smart-grid system; a modernization of electrical metering that allows for shorter down time, real-time energy use reporting for consumers and automated reporting to utility providers. “Vermont is the perfect place for a test center focusing on solar integration with the smart-grid,” Sanders said.
Results from the testing facility will be used to “make sure this resource is fully integrated into the ISO grid,” said Janette Bombardier of IBM. They will also help in “generating the data needed to attract financial investments,” said Steve Rottler, vice president of Sandia National Laboratories. “Systems have to be tested both in the lab and in the field under real conditions,” Rottler said. The rigorous testing and subsequent data sets will allow commercial solar systems to be constructed with confidence and awareness of potential upkeep and management necessities within specific regions.
The success of solar integration could be a key component in the achievement of the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan goal of providing 90 percent of the states’ energy from renewable sources by 2050, as well as serving as an economic booster by creating thousands of jobs in the state. The solar industry currently employs 120,000 workers, Le said, and has recently experienced 14-15 percent growth.
“Today is a major step forward in making our great state a leader in sustainable energy,” Shumlin said.