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Get to Know a Wind Energy Expert

Lifelong devotion to wind leads to international recognition.

Some may know Shuangwen (Shawn) Sheng for his breakthrough work with the Gearbox Reliability Collaborative (GRC) and condition monitoring; others may know him through his successful gearbox failures database development efforts. But what many don't know about Shawn is that his passion for wind energy didn't develop until he already had a bachelor's degree, which was a feat unto itself given his childhood spent in a rural village in the Heilongjiang province.

When Shawn was a child, China was still a developing country, and the rural communities had one focus: making a living. Shawn had his first career aspirations when he was only 6 years old and saw a truck for the first time. Naturally, he decided to become a truck driver when he grew up. While he may not have fulfilled his childhood aspirations, he did leave his hometown for a formal education. It was a move that set in motion a passionate career in wind energy.

Although Shawn's parents did not have the benefit of formal instruction—his father had a third grade education and his mother never learned to read or write—they knew it was important for their son to attend school and receive an education.

A photo of a man wearing a hard hat and a harness standing on top of a wind turbine throwing his hands in the air.

Shawn on top of one of the research turbines at the National Wind Technology Center. Photo courtesy of Shawn Sheng

Shawn received his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Northeast Petroleum University (formerly Daqing Petroleum Institute), but during his time as a master's student studying electrical engineering at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, he was exposed to and fell in love with wind energy. He cites an experience in 1999 at the Dabancheng wind farm in Xinjiang, China, that changed his life forever. His team climbed to the nacelle of a 600-kilowatt wind turbine and Shawn was captivated by the sound of the spinning blades and the exceptional view.

"After that climb I decided to devote my life to wind," he explains.

He was also drawn to the socioeconomic effects that wind power can have on remote villages that have existed for centuries without electricity. When he decided to dedicate his life to working in the wind industry, it was with the hope that—"my work could help light up the world."

Shawn has been working with the Gearbox Reliability Collaboration since he started at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in 2008, and his involvement in the project has taken it in new and unexpected directions. He says that the creative freedom he was given on the project allowed him to apply his Ph.D. thesis on condition monitoring to the GRC test turbines, for which he has earned international recognition in the wind community.

He's also well-known within the industry for his work on fostering an environment of across-the-board collaboration. In an industry that can be secretive at times, Shawn managed a database that could provide objective data to the industry on the reliability of gearboxes.  Because of his diligence and collaboration with other labs and companies, he increased the size of the database from under 40 data points to more than 250 in just 1 year. By the second year, the database boasted more than 900 data points, used by members of the GRC—manufacturers, owners, operators, researchers, and consultants—and stakeholders outside of the GRC in order to develop more reliable gearboxes.

Not only does Shawn share the data collected by the GRC, he also works to share information throughout the industry by organizing workshops based on his knowledge of condition monitoring. The first workshop Shawn organized in 2009 was attended by 220 industry members, and earned him a reputation for organizing informative and collaborative workshops and meetings.

A photo of a man and a woman standing in front of a bridge and the ocean.

Shawn vacationing with his wife in Key West, Florida. Photo courtesy of Shawn Sheng

When not at NREL, Shawn enjoys traveling with his wife and their two children. They especially enjoy traveling to the U.S. National Parks to camp and spend time outdoors. He is also currently taking classes at Denver Seminary.

From a childhood in a remote village in China to an epiphany atop a wind turbine, Shawn has traveled a long way to get to where he is today—and that journey is benefitting not only him, but NREL and the greater wind industry as a whole.

Read some of Shawn's publications covering wind energy, including condition monitoring and reliability:

To read articles about past wind energy experts, please visit the wind energy expert archives.