Powering the Future: The Vermont Smart Grid and Beyond

Keynote Address by Senator Bernie Sanders


I want to start by saying thank you to everyone for being here today, in particular Assistant Secretary Pat Hoffman from the Department of Energy whose office has provided the funds not only for this conference, and for the smart grid investment in Vermont, but also other research activities that are taking place this year as part of the Vermont/Sandia collaboration.

I am very pleased that Governor Shumlin is with us today.  The Governor has a vision that Vermont can and should be a national leader in addressing some of the major energy and environmental problems facing our country.  He understands, as I do and as many in this room do, that good energy and good environmental policy is also, especially in the midst of a recession, good economic and job creating policy.  At a time when the United States imports some $350 billion a year in foreign oil, the Governor and the entire Vermont delegation understands that we can create, over a period of years, millions of good paying jobs in America as we move to energy efficiency and such sustainable energies as wind, solar, geo-thermal and bio-mass. And, in the process, we can cut greenhouse gas emissions and begin the process of reversing global warming.

I also want to thank Rick Stulen and his great team at Sandia not only for their help on this project but for the excellent work that Sandia has been doing for so many years on sustainable energy, cyber security and economic development.  I am very proud of the work that our national laboratories do and we are excited about the collaboration between Vermont and Sandia.  

I also want to thank UVM President Dan Fogel and his staff for their enthusiastic embrace of this project and for their hosting the events this week.  I also want to recognize Vermont's electric utilities for their cutting edge work on energy efficiency and helping Vermont lead the nation toward a smart grid. There are so many people from Vermont utilities who has been active on this but I did want to especially mention and thank Mary Powell, Scott Johnstone and Chris Dutton.  

Today marks an important step forward in our effort to establish a Sandia-Vermont Center for Excellence. 

There are 21 Department of Energy National Laboratories in the United States, but there are none in New England despite the fact that our region is home to leading universities and a burgeoning clean technology sector. After visiting Sandia several years ago, and having the opportunity to tour their extensive research facilities, including their solar power test site, and learning about how they have worked to make American companies more competitive, I invited a team from Sandia to visit Vermont. What emerged from that visit, and many follow-up meetings and discussions, is that there is great potential for a partnership between Vermont and Sandia. In fact, we are already working together on several issues. UVM is now home to a Sandia solar photovoltaic site to test solar panel performance in cold weather climates, and Sandia has already been actively and very effectively working with Vermont utilities in addressing cyber-security issues.

As is widely known, one of the great energy challenges facing our nation today is modernizing an aging, inefficient and inadequate electric transmission system.  This is a major issue not only because we want to make certain that we prevent future regional or national black-outs but, for those of us who want to move forward aggressively on sustainable energy, we need to be able to move and manage whole new sources of electric supply.  In other words, it is one thing to talk about building large numbers of both utility scale energy facilities and small distributed energy sources but it is quite another thing to figure out how to transmit that electricity and to integrate those new sources into a seamless regional and national grid.

Given that reality, perhaps our most significant initial opportunity for partnership is on smart grid technology. Vermont is in a unique position nationally as it relates to developing a smart power grid because we are embarking on a project which will, within a few years, make us the first state in the country to provide almost universal smart metering in businesses and homes throughout the state. 

I was proud to work with Senator Leahy and Congressman Welch to support Vermont's efforts to compete for federal stimulus funds to accomplish that goal.  What was particularly exciting about that application, and I believe what impressed the Department of Energy, was the fact that Vermont's application was sponsored by all of our utilities, large and small, private and public and cooperatives, as well as Efficiency Vermont and VELCO - our transmission utility. Because of this unprecedented collaboration, Vermont was awarded nearly $69 million in federal funds to upgrade our grid, and deploy new technology in the form of smart meters to nearly every home and business in Vermont. Vermont's utilities provided a match of $69 million for a total of $138 million - making this one of the largest single infrastructure projects in the modern history of our state.

Working with Sandia Vermont will now be in a position, uniquely in the country, to effectively accommodate the introduction into the grid of thousands of new supplies of electricity - large and small, from homes, farms and businesses.  This is a complicated process but is absolutely essential if we are to move away from fossil fuels and into such sustainable energies as wind and solar.  

Furthermore, our collaboration with Sandia will enable us to improve the already excellent work we have done in energy efficiency.  For example, Vermont has been the leading state in the nation in terms of energy efficiency. In fact, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, if every state in the country saved 1.5 percent of their projected electricity consumption annually for the next ten years, which is less than what Vermont is already achieving today, we could avoid the need for 390 medium-sized coal burning plants, create 220,000 new jobs, and save Americans $170 billion. But I know we can do even more, and with Vermont set to achieve near universal deployment of smart meters by 2013, we have an opportunity to increase efficiency. However, we are going to face certain questions which the Sandia-Vermont Center for Excellence will help Vermont and the nation address.  For example:

  • What technology is needed to help people learn more about their energy use in real-time, and how can we equip our homes and business to achieve greater efficiency based on this?
  • How can this new technology help lower our energy bills, particularly for families who are struggling or seniors on a fixed-income?
  • What are the implications for cyber security as we bring new communications technology to the energy grid?

These are critical questions that involve technology research and development, complex systems modeling, real-world research and demonstration projects and positive communication.  If we answer these questions effectively, we have the opportunity to capitalize on the potential for the smart grid, reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and increase sustainable energy production.   Furthermore, we can modernize our electrical system so that our utilities will be able to respond to service interruptions and outages, which happen more often than we like during winter storms, more quickly, more cost-effectively and with less burden on electric consumers. 

It is also my hope that as Vermont leads the nation in moving forward with its significant commitment to deploying smart metering in the best possible way, green businesses - in manufacturing, in installing new products, in creating new centers of expertise - will also flourish in Vermont, and create a whole new generation of good-paying jobs for Vermonters. 

What Vermont offers Sandia, the Department of Energy, and the nation is a real-world model for this new research and technology. We will be the first state to have near universal smart meter deployment. We have all of our utilities at the table. We have the expertise of Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), which runs the nation's leading energy efficiency program and consults on energy matters across the United States and the world. We have the intellectual capital that resides in our universities and colleges, including UVM, Middlebury, Norwich, Vermont Law School, the Vermont State Colleges, and Vermont Tech. We have world-class sustainable energy businesses including leading solar and wind and biomass energy manufacturers and installers. And we have the commitment to sustainability that defines Vermont, as exhibited by the fact that more than 80 towns have taken it upon themselves to form town energy committees to find local solutions to our energy challenges.

We know that Sandia, as a major, world-class research institution focused on energy security, brings expertise in smart grid, cyber security, micro-grids, solar and distributed generation, and many other fields. Sandia, like the University of Vermont, brings great resources to addressing the problems which arise from complex systems - and what is our current and future electric generation, distribution and usage if not one of the most complex systems in the modern world?

The Vermont/Sandia partnership, when fully realized, will establish a Center for Excellence right here in Vermont that will conduct advanced research that will bring us closer to energy self-sufficiency in this nation, that will greatly increase energy efficiency, and that will help develop a new green economy.  This partnership will work with businesses and academia to develop new technologies, new policies, new procedures, to move our nation forward in the twenty-first century. 

This is our vision: Over the long-term, this Center will help create jobs and new educational opportunities for Vermont students and workers.  It will make Vermont's and America's businesses more competitive both in the new technologies of the smart grid and locally distributed sustainable energy, and in the immensely important effort to increase energy efficiency and in doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.