Senator Sanders explains how the bi-facial solar panels operate at the Sandia test site in Williston Thursday. VBM photo. Video below.
by Timothy McQuiston Vermont Business Magazine In the near corner of one the state's largest solar sites are several sets of solar panels that seem out-of-place against the vast rows of solar panels at a former corn field in Williston. This cluster of photo-voltaic panels look different. Some are shaped differently, or are of a different shape and color, several are quite small and some even appear to be facing the wrong way. Turns out they are facing the correct way for a specialized type of bi-facial solar panel that generates more than twice the output of a typical collector.
US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) today applauded the “cutting-edge role Vermont is playing in researching, testing and deploying solar energy,” during a visit to the US Department of Energy’s solar testing site in Williston.
The Vermont Regional Test Center (RTC) is one of five such facilities in the United States that give manufacturers of solar technologies the opportunity to test the performance and reliability of their products in real-world conditions. The RTCs are funded by the US Department of Energy and are managed by Sandia National Laboratories.
Sanders helped secure $3 million in 2013 from the Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative to create the Vermont solar testing site specifically to study the effectiveness of different solar technologies in a cold and wet climate. The Vermont site is located on land owned by GlobalFoundries, who Sanders thanked for its continued commitment to the project.
“This facility, in a very short time, has become the most successful RTC in the country,” Sanders said. “We now have 15 installations, 24 module types, and 11 industry partners – including three Vermont companies.” The three Vermont companies are AllEarth Renewables, Norwich Technologies, and NRG Systems.
Photo of GMP's Williston solar farm by developer groSolar. The Sandia test site is in the upper left corner.
Laurie Burnham of Sandia National Laboratories explained that the Regional Test Center employs state-of-the-art data collection and analysis to assess the performance of different solar technologies, in different weather conditions.
Josh Castonguay, Green Mountain Power’s chief innovation executive, said the electric utility is committed to helping transform our energy system, and efforts like the RTC were critically important in that effort.
“There has been a lot of momentum. This is an exciting time,” he said.
GMP owns and operates the 4.7 MW solar farm attached to the site that it developed in partnership with GF in 2016.
Sanders also said that the recent surge in solar investment is “creating good-paying jobs that our economy needs,” and noted that Vermont ranks second in the nation for solar jobs per capita. And, he said, solar energy is saving Vermonters money.
“Last summer, on a particularly hot day, a new advanced solar and battery system in Rutland saved Green Mountain Power customers $200,000 in just one hour by reducing peak power demand,” he said.
Sanders also criticized the Trump administration, which took steps to repeal the Clean Power Plan this week, for its refusal to even acknowledge the reality of climate change.
“Despite what President Trump and this Administration may think, climate change is real, climate change is caused by human activity and climate change is already causing devastating problems in our country and around the world. Just ask the people of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Texas or Florida who have experienced enormous damage due to recent ferocious storms that were exacerbated by warmer air holding more water vapor,” Sanders said.
“The very good news,” Sanders said, “is that communities all across this country are moving toward energy efficiency and renewable energy. Total investment in renewables last year was double the investment in fossil fuels. President Trump talks about bringing back coal. It’s not going to happen. This is the future.”
With Burnham, Sanders took the opportunity to show off some off the bi-facial solar panels, which simply means they can generate electricity from the front and back at the same time. While Burnham said the generation on the back is obviously less, the reflection off the ground is energy gained.
Reflection off snow is expected to significantly increase outputs. This coming winter will be the first since the installation of the bi-facial panels.
Other bi-facial panels at the site sit upright, instead of being angled toward the sun. They also face east-west instead of facing south. In the six months they've been able to study these panels, the output gain has been over 100 percent, Burnham said, or more than double a south-facing fixed panel of the same type. The advantage of the east-west array, she said, is that you catch the sun coming up and then going down. "You get two humps," she said, instead of just one burst of energy at mid-day.
Vermont is the only test center in the North. The others are in Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.
PVs are already known to work more efficiently in cool weather (and windy and low humidity) and Sandia and its clients want to figure out which panels work best under differing weather conditions and latitudes.
The test site is expected to operate for three years.