faculty on roof with solar panel
Prof. Xiaonan Lu
Colleen Stepanian

How one researcher's solar research seeks to support the power grid.

To some, the phrase solar power is an oxymoron at worst or a big ask, at best. How can science expect to harness sunlight to become a key player in the global sustainability matrix, nudging past non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels? Sometimes, engineering can be aided by a sense of service with a healthy dash of audacity. Maybe that is necessary.

When speaking with Dr. Xiaonan Lu and his student and postdoc researchers in his Advanced Power Electronics (APECS) group, the sense of purpose is pervasive. In particular, when speaking about a recent award from the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Energy Technologies Office as part of a $130 million round of funding to boost solar energy solutions. 

"The goal of this project is to advance the state-of-the-art power electronic inverter control for renewable energy grid integration, with special emphasis on how conventional grid-following renewable energy resources actively establish grid frequency and voltage as grid-forming generation units," Dr. Lu said. "This is a paradigm shift in the area of grid-interactive renewable energy integration."

Dr. Lu rightly adds that sustainability is a big concept, and this research contributes from the perspectives of power electronics and power systems. 

"Particularly, towards modernized power grids," Dr. Lu said, adding the need to "accommodate a mixed portfolio of inverter-based resources (i.e., renewable energy resources, such as solar and wind) and conventional rotating generation units (i.e., traditional synchronous generators). More importantly, with the increasing penetration of inverter-based resources, we can contribute to the decarbonization of modern power systems by reducing the carbon emission from traditional generators, and therefore contribute to the larger picture of grid sustainability."

Put another way: less reliance on harmful fossil fuels and a more diverse sustainability portfolio. This is particularly telling recently, not only given continued power issues and outages across the country, but also considering the economic and security implications of outmoded power grids. students and faculty in lab

The project is a joint effort between Dr. Lu's team and National Renewable Energy Laboratory, as well as a diversified group of partners from industry and academia.

Dr. Lu was originally drawn to sustainability research while working as a transfer Ph.D. student in Denmark. 

"I got a chance to see what renewable or clean energy can offer to us without jeopardizing the requirements of reliable and efficient power generation," he said. 

Now, with this work, he is taking a similar approach with his own APECS group, which he described as a team-oriented research group. 

"I ask all my students and postdocs to join the field-oriented projects. They participated in the phases of both theoretical analysis and laboratory-scale or even field testing," Dr. Lu said. "It is valuable for them to gain some real experience and knowledge towards the actual deployment of the technical solutions we develop together.

"I am the first generation in my family to not serve in the US armed forces, so I feel a sense of duty to my country and the planet in that way," Elliott Fix, one of the Ph.D. student researchers working under Dr. Lu. "I'm proud to have worked for various government agencies to combat climate change."

Lizhi Ding, another Ph.D. student researcher, and Yuhua Du, a postdoc researcher, (both pictured with Dr. Lu) who both work in the APECS group under Dr. Lu, likened themselves to "revolutionaries" and embraced clean energy technologies even when they were young.

"When I was an undergraduate student, I was told that the current energy systems are built around fossil fuels with finite reserves, and they could be ultimately replaced by renewable energy," Yuxi Men, another Ph.D. student under Dr. Lu said. "It feels pretty cool to be a part of studying renewable energy now." 

Learn more about the work of the APECS group at https://sites.temple.edu/ecexiaonanlu.