As an undergraduate student at Northern Arizona University, Brad Van Orden never shied away from a challenge. While earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in math, Van Orden approached engineering professor Earl Duque about advising him on an independent study project. Van Orden was interested in how Duque's work with NASA and wind energy technology research could have practical applications. Impressed by Van Orden's approach, Duque encouraged him to work with an off-the-grid local ranch that was running its entire seven-building operation using nothing but diesel generators, and which was searching for a hybrid (wind and solar power) solution that could save money. For Van Orden, this was the challenge he had been waiting for.
SunWind Solutions was acquired by Southwest Windpower in December 2010. Based in Flagstaff, Southwest Windpower is the world's leading supplier of distributed wind generators. Brad joined Southwest Windpower as their Customer Systems Development Manager, which will allow him to continue to develop the SunWind software full time.
"After researching and calculating the climate data for the ranch, I conducted a statistical analysis of the wind, solar, and temperature data for the ranch's location," he says. "After I applied an analysis to the various renewable energy products on the market, I created several computer software programs to help automate all the mathematical and statistical calculations. By the end of the semester, I had retrofitted the ranch with the right combination of solar panels and wind turbines, helping them save more than $75,000."
And what started as an undergraduate research project became an invaluable tool for the renewable energy industry. When Van Orden graduated in 2006, he continued to build on the work he had done as a student. By importing climate data for the entire Unites States into his existing software programs, Van Orden was able to determine the most cost-effective installation of wind or solar panels for any new or existing structure anywhere in the country.
For renewable energy retailers and end users, Van Orden's work means access to the most complete climate data available, and an ability to calculate the most cost-effective way to integrate various products depending on individual budgets. And, most importantly for the bottom line of energy retailers, his work means that what used to take several hours or days to calculate, will now only take minutes.
"There are thousands of (renewable energy) dealers around the country that are doing many systems per day for customers," says Van Orden. "Each system installation takes eight hours. If they could do it in five minutes (using my software), would save them a lot of money."
With the help Northern Arizona's Center for Emerging Technologies, Van Orden was recently able to take his work to another level and found his own business, SunWind Solutions: the business is designed to support the launch of his software into the renewable energy marketplace. According to Van Orden, this step represents the culmination of the work he began as a student.
"The project I began as an undergraduate created a passion in me to continue working on, and it has continued for five years," says Van Orden. "I credit the learning environment at NAU for helping me to get here. There was a lot of interaction and brainstorming (with professors and other students), and Professor Duque guided me in the right direction without providing the actual answers."
In his journey from undergraduate to entrepreneur, Van Orden also praised the importance of having access to professors. His ability to seek direct guidance, he says, gave him the resources he needed to develop his thinking, and ultimately helped him to follow his dream.
"If you want to learn more and go deeper, (instructors at NAU will) go out of their way to make it possible," Van Orden says. "Professors at NAU are very accessible, and the fact that I am still friends with many of them is telling about the professional relationships you can develop."