Energy for the Future
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
"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
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.