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MIT Sloan Professor Integrate Renewable Energy to Improve Electricity Grid for Better Use

Yusuf Balogun
Yusuf Balogun
Yusuf is a law graduate and freelance journalist with a keen interest in tech reporting.

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Andy Sun, a Sloan Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has worked on new methods to integrate renewable energy into the electric grid. Sun, who is a leading global expert on renewable energy and a member of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, integrates renewable energy to improve the electricity grid for better use.

As far back as 2020, Sun was an operations research Ph.D. candidate with a diversified academic background: He had studied electrical engineering, quantum computing, and analog computing but was still searching for a doctoral research subject involving energy.

The Journey to Integrating Renewable Energy into Electric Grid

Sun’s journey toward being an electricity grid expert was informed by all the stages of his higher education. Sun, who was born and raised in China, graduated in 2003 with a BA in electronic engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing. He afterward relocated to MIT and enrolled as a graduate student in the Media Lab. Sun had started working on analog computer circuit design for Professor Neil Gershenfeld, another individual whose worldview had an impact on the Sun, instead of his intended research of quantum computing.

One day, as part of a graduate energy class taught by visiting professor Ignacio J. Pérez Arriaga, the students visited the headquarters of ISO-New England, the organization that operates New England’s entire power grid and wholesale electricity market. It slammed into the Sun. He might utilize his engineering expertise to build and improve the grid as a whole, with all of its connections, circuits, and need for efficiency.

“The power grids in the U.S. continent are composed of two major interconnections, the Western Interconnection, the Eastern Interconnection, and one minor interconnection, the Texas grid,” Sun says. “Within each interconnection, the power grid is one big machine, essentially. It’s connected by tens of thousands of miles of transmission lines, thousands of generators, and consumers, and if anything is not synchronized, the system may collapse. It’s one of the most complicated engineering systems.”

Sun hasn’t given it much thought. In addition to thinking broadly about the future structure of the grid and the process of making practically all energy renewable, he has written hundreds of papers regarding optimizing the flow of intermittent renewable energy across the electricity system, a significant practical issue for grid operators. Sun, an operations research associate professor who returned to MIT in 2022 as the Iberdrola-Avangrid Associate Professor in Electric Power Systems, emphasizes the necessity of making a swift transition to renewable energy sources.

“The decarbonization of our energy system is fundamental,” Sun says. “It will change a lot of things because it has to. We don’t have much time to get there. Two decades, three decades is the window in which we have to get a lot of things done. If you think about how much money will need to be invested, it’s not actually that much. We should embrace this future that we have to get to.”

Integrating Renewable Energy to Improve Electricity Grid

The main issue Sun faces is that, in contrast to some other electricity sources, renewable energy sources have a propensity to be intermittent, producing power in an uneven pattern throughout time. Grid operators can overcome that issue, but it does call for some fresh ideas.

Numerous studies that Sun has produced concentrate on the specifics of how to use intermittent energy sources more frequently while maintaining the grid’s existing degree of functionality. This is also the focus of his 2021 book, co-authored with Antonio J. Conejo, “Robust Optimization in Electric Energy Systems.”

“A major theme of my research is how to achieve the integration of renewables and still operate the system reliably,” Sun says. “You have to keep the balance of supply and demand. This requires many time scales of operation, from multi-decade planning to monthly or annual maintenance, to daily operations, down through second-by-second. I work on problems in all these timescales.”

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