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The Lifeworks installation by Austin Energy, a SHINES awardee. | Photo courtesy of Austin Energy
The SunShot Initiative’s new systems integration program manager, Dr. Guohui Yuan, maintains a steadfast commitment to add more solar energy onto the nation’s electrical grid while always striving to achieve the office’s broader goals. Throughout his career as a scientist and systems engineer, Yuan has taken a holistic approach to problem solving, drawing connections between seemingly different areas to solve a problem.
“Because of my physics background I always look at problems at the system level – not just the issue, but the big picture,” he said. Growing up in China, Yuan idolized Nobel Prize winners in physics, developing an admiration for the profession. Coupled with his natural talent in math and science, Yuan eventually studied physics in undergraduate and graduate school.
Before joining the SunShot Initiative in 2011 as a technical advisor for the systems integration team, Yuan worked at two different startups developing software products for utilities. Drawn to the SunShot Initiative’s vision and potential impact, he says working at SunShot is a lot like working at a startup.
“The office’s innovative culture is not that much different from the private sector,” he says. “Like a startup, the team members are encouraged to think big and innovate and to be accountable for the results in a fast-paced environment. We’re making investment decisions to solve complex problems and prioritize the different plans, programs, and initiatives. All of that is similar to the private industry but with more scientific rigor and at a much larger scale.”
With expertise in smart grid, power systems, power electronics, and communication, Yuan takes an interdisciplinary approach to his new position. The systems integration team helps the solar industry to develop new strategies and solutions for reliably connecting even more solar energy to the electricity grid in a cost-effective way. Yuan believes today’s power industry is increasingly connected and that solar technologies and grid modernization efforts are converging.
“As photovoltaic (PV) penetration gets even higher, we have an issue of dispatchability of solar,” he says. “Because solar generation depends on the weather, and it’s not always there when you need it; this represents a challenge for the industry.”
“We’re always looking to the future. We’re already planning for what solar will look like in 2030." — Dr. Guohui Yuan, SunShot Initiative's systems integration program manager
Yuan and his team developed the new SHINES funding program, which aims to provide reliable solar-generated electricity to the grid whenever it is needed. By integrating energy storage and building-load management with solar, the program marches toward the capability of connecting hundreds of gigawatts of solar to the grid, all while creating a more resilient energy system.
“The goal of the SHINES projects are to package assets—PV, energy storage, controllable building load—as a complete solution in the power system by taking a holistic view. Both the utility and the customer benefit from this solution, so it’s a win-win situation,” he adds. Although the SHINES projects are just starting, Yuan thinks their approaches—like exploring the use of microgrids in Chicago and examining energy storage, energy load, and PV at the system level in Austin—are particularly novel ways for boosting resiliency during emergencies and enabling more affordable solar to be connected to the grid.
Yuan says the industry will need to overcome various challenges to integrating hundreds of gigawatts of solar to the grid beyond SunShot’s 2020 goals. “We’re always looking to the future. We’re already planning for what solar will look like in 2030. For me personally, I see a much higher adoption of solar energy in the power system, much higher penetration, and solar is going to be an integral part of the modernized grid along with other emerging technologies,” Yuan says.
Looking ahead, Yuan envisions a paradigm shift in the electric power system, including possible changes to the way energy is generated and delivered and the choices customers can make. “I see a lot of opportunities in energy innovation, and I hope to continue to be a part of this growing field.”