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Energy for the Future

Northern Arizona University is among the world's leading research institutions in wind energy, and Tom Acker, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is one of its most renowned experts. Acker is also the director of the university’s Institute for Sustainable Energy Solutions (ISES)—which seeks to educate decision makers and inform energy policy—and a global expert for the International Energy Agency, providing them with the research and information required for wind and hydropower integration. Add it all up, and Acker is one of the primary drivers of progress in the wind energy field.

Although the main focus for ISES is devising sustainable solutions for the Southwest, its research and technology has broad-based and worldwide applications. "Our lab is in Arizona, but what we are doing here can be applied anywhere," says Acker. "This is cutting edge wind technology research, and it enables us to be one of the best in the world."

Making a difference in energy solutions

According to Acker, harnessing wind power has the potential to make a significant positive impact on renewable energy solutions as well as on Arizona's economy. It also provides great research opportunities for faculty and students.

"NAU can play at least two roles in wind technology," says Acker. "One is in grid integration and knowing how to bring a lot of energy into a utility system, and the other is in wind modeling—knowing how the wind flows over a terrain. In addition to our modeling capabilities, we will also be developing expertise in measuring wind characteristics using some advanced laser technology over the next few years."

These roles, say Acker, will position the university as a wind energy leader in years to come. It is a rewarding prospect for Acker, who came to Flagstaff in 1996 after receiving his PhD from Colorado State University. Upon his arrival, the fit with Northern Arizona University was exactly what he was looking for. "I liked the department. I like the focus this university has on students, and I love Flagstaff," says Acker.

A focus on students

Acker is also involving students in his research, providing increased opportunities for learning. Currently, his students are assisting with research for the National Renewable Energy Lab, which is exploring more efficient methods for integrating wind energy into the electric grid, and the interaction and integration of wind and hydropower. "There are a lot of things that you need to peel apart and understand when it comes to energy integration, and our students are learning these things firsthand," says Acker.

Acker believes this hands-on experience is what sets the university’s undergraduate experience apart from others institutions. The relationships that are created, he says, are rewarding for all parties involved.

"The big bonus for engineering students here is the close interaction with faculty," says Acker. "On a per student basis, there is more opportunity to get involved with faculty projects, and on the teaching side there is more opportunity for student-faculty interaction."

"I mentor students in the truest sense of the word," he says. "I help them set up a problem or project, but they have to go and solve it. This allows for some really good work: for instance, engineering students get hands-on experience in the renewable energy test facility known as the solar shack, which has everything you need to be completely off the grid including solar panels, wind turbines, a big battery bank, and inverters. It is a great learning experience in terms of renewable energy."

Going forward, Acker will continue to mentor both graduate and undergraduate students as they assist him with various projects. Doing so, he says, brings benefits to both students and to research outcomes.