State woos national research lab

By:  Dan McLean, Staff Writer
Burlington Free Press

Delegation works to bring Sandia National Laboratories to Vermont

A delegation of Vermonters in the academic and energy community, organized by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., leave for New Mexico today to continue a dialogue with Sandia National Laboratories about opening a satellite lab in Vermont.

The lab would focus on smart-grid technology and related cyber-security issues. Sandia would study "how to bring these technologies to bear and to use Vermont as a test bed," Les Shephard, Sandia's vice president for energy, resources and nonproliferation, said in a phone interview.

A decision has not been reached. But if Sandia comes to Vermont, it would work closely with a learning institution such as the University of Vermont, create a small number of high-paying jobs and create the potential for spinoff businesses -- and jobs -- to develop here.

Sandia National Laboratories, which was founded in 1949 and had its roots in the Manhattan Project during World War II, is one of 21 national laboratories and technology centers affiliated with the U.S. Energy Department. Sandia is a "national security lab" whose mission includes ensuring the "security of the smart grid," Shephard said. "We believe energy security is a critical element to our nation's security."

The Energy Department doesn't have a national lab in New England, something Sanders began lobbying to change during his visit to Sandia in 2008.

"At the end of the day, 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," Shephard recalled.

A delegation from Sandia, including Shephard, visited Vermont for three days in November.

It's too early to say how many people would work for Sandia in Vermont or exactly where a lab would be located, but Shephard said it would likely employ about a dozen people. That group would have access to the resources of Sandia's laboratories to develop innovations that could be spun off into new companies that could be based in Vermont.

Vermont is appealing, Shephard said, because the state is "a national leader" in energy efficiency.

That's a point Sanders emphasized during a recent interview about the prospects of Sandia developing a satellite facility here. "This state is leading the country in energy efficiency. Period. We are No. 1," he said.

Sandia is interested, but the Department of Energy must sign off on the plan, Shephard said, adding, "It's my view that this makes sense."

All three members of Vermont's congressional delegation met with U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in Sen. Patrick Leahy's office in early October to speak about the prospects of the plan, according to Sanders' office.

The delegation visiting Sandia's sprawling laboratory complex in Albuquerque for two days is made up of two members of Sanders' staff and leaders from Vermont's academic and energy sectors.

Mary Powell, the CEO of Green Mountain Power Corp. is part of the delegation. The smart grid, which Vermont has received a $69 million federal matching grant to pursue, is "a key opportunity for collaboration in the future," Powell said.

Job creation could follow.

"Whenever you bring businesses or researchers or students to an environment, you always create the opportunity for spinoff ventures," she said. "Simply put, the world of energy is going through a tremendous transformation. ... That creates fertile ground for new ideas and new businesses to grow."

Domenico Grasso, vice president for research at the University of Vermont, is also making the trip. "I think there is significant overlap of issues here. At the university, we have expertise that they could benefit from," Gasso said, mentioning smart-grid technology.

The delegation also includes 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.

Aside from cooperative utilities and a reputation for energy efficiency, Vermont's challenging climate is appealing to Sandia.

"We could develop, deploy and assess various types of technology in cold weather," Shephard said. "Our test facilities here are in the bright skies of New Mexico, where we have over 300 days of sunshine."

Additional Facts
What is Sandia?

Sandia's original emphasis was on ordnance engineering -- turning the nuclear physics packages created by Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories into deployable weapons, according to the company's Web site.

Most of Sandia National Laboratories revenue still comes from maintaining nuclear weapons and assessing defense systems, according to company revenue figures. The primary campus is located on Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., employing about 7,500 people and the other is in Livermore, Calif., employing another 1,000. The division interested in a satellite facility in Vermont is focused solely on the smart grid and cyber security. Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Co., manages the lab for the Department of Energy.