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Editorial: Batteries can charge Long Island's future

Peter Boudouvas, of Brookhaven National Lab, showed

Peter Boudouvas, of Brookhaven National Lab, showed its 32-megawatt solar farm. (May 12, 2011) Credit: Randee Daddona

The next growth industry powering Long Island: batteries.

The U.S. Department of Energy's decision this month to keep Stony Brook University as the premier partner of the Brookhaven National Laboratory ensures that groundbreaking federal and state research on heavy-duty batteries to store solar and wind energy stays right here.

Finding a way to have reliable power from renewable sources when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing is critical to help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and to lower energy costs. As the region becomes central to this vital research, we benefit from top-tier jobs and business opportunities that can propel Long Island's transformation to an "innovation economy."

Brookhaven lab boasts the most advanced equipment for scientific and technology research -- with an annual budget of $650 million, 2,850 employees and 4,000 scientists visiting each year.

Operations would have continued regardless of who won the $3.2 billion contract to run the lab for the next five years. But the decision to reject other bidders and stay with Brookhaven Science Associates, a corporation formed by Stony Brook and Battelle Memorial Institute of Ohio, an international nonprofit group focused on scientific research, was important to the skyrocketing reputation of the SUNY flagship campus under its president, Samuel L. Stanley Jr. Brookhaven lab's collaboration with Stony Brook is deep -- 23 faculty members hold joint appointments and 600 university students are big users of the lab.

And under Brookhaven Science Associates, which was brought to the lab in 1998 because the carelessness of prior operators resulted in a leak of radioactive materials, relationships with surrounding communities have greatly improved. Brookhaven Science Associates created an advisory council to make the lab's operations more understandable to its residential neighbors, and it has removed toxins from groundwater, although the leak cleanup continues.

The Department of Energy, the primary funder of the lab, required applicants for the new contract to demonstrate that their home state would be a research partner. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is expected to announce a substantial funding commitment early next year as New York seeks to advance as a leader in green energy. And that dovetails nicely with Long Island's power needs.

Brookhaven lab director Doon Gibbs envisions using the 5,300-acre federal enclave in the pine barrens as a battery tester. Already the site of a 32-megawatt solar farm that is a joint project of the Department of Energy and the Long Island Power Authority, the lab built its own 1-megawatt solar array. It feeds the lab's internal power grid to provide electricity to its offices and housing.

Allowing battery developers to test research in real time should provide better information on how intermittent and stored power fluctuates on the grid. Not only is battery storage important for providing electricity to Long Island without building costly new power plants, it is also an essential building block for micro grids -- smaller local networks that can jolt into action when parts of the main grid are knocked out, as happened after superstorm Sandy.

Major commercial developers that want to research and test their batteries are expected to come to take advantage of the lab's internal grid and tap into Stony Brook University's brain trust.


If Brookhaven Science Associates had lost the contract to operate the lab, it likely would have been a double whammy. The Department of Energy will decide in the next two years whether to go ahead with an estimated $600 million project to build the next big thing in nuclear physics, an electron ion collider.

Brookhaven's competitor for the collider is the Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, where the city and state are working with lab managers to win that contract. If the Jefferson team had won the right to operate Brookhaven lab, the new collider would have gone to Virginia.

Long Island and energy have had a tortured past. What happens at Brookhaven lab could lead to a brighter future.