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Meet a 91-Year-Old Wind Energy Pioneer

July 10, 2015 - 1:32pm

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NREL Senior Engineer Palmer Carlin at the National Wind Technology Center, flanked by some of the massive turbines he says early wind technology pioneers only dreamed of seeing. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder

NREL Senior Engineer Palmer Carlin at the National Wind Technology Center, flanked by some of the massive turbines he says early wind technology pioneers only dreamed of seeing. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder

Our #LabSpotlight series profiles standout individuals at the National Labs. This post features a Palmer Carlin, a 91-year-old wind energy pioneer from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. A version of this post originally appeared on NREL.gov.

Three afternoons a week, 91-year-old Palmer Carlin comes into the Energy Department's National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and begins having fun. That's where the senior engineer fields questions from the public, often from would-be inventors convinced they have the next big renewable energy breakthrough.

"Across the U.S., there are inventors, students, small businesses and entrepreneurs with wind-related questions who continuously shower emails and voicemails on all of us here at the wind site," said Carlin. He imagines that the typical inventor's scenario begins when a retired machinist goes out to a garage workshop at the suggestion of an exasperated spouse. "Then the guy invents some sort of wind machine and calls me up," he said with a laugh.

Different Times on Campus

Times were different when Carlin started his career, and the nation was in the middle of World War II. After growing up on a prairie farm in Wiley, Colorado, where he tinkered with spare engine parts, he arrived on the University of Colorado Boulder campus in 1942 as part of the second-ever class of CU's Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps. The group often started the day exercising at dawn before getting cleaned up and dressed in uniform for class. Gas and food were rationed; travel was a luxury because nobody had a car. Carlin's student days weren't focused on wind research, though he was interested in electrical engineering -- but it was the overall campus experience that had the most impact.

When he graduated with his electrical engineering degree in 1945, the war was ending -- but he still had about 18 months of service. He was selected to go to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. "There I was at Times Square. I'd come from a small town to New York, by way of Boulder."

Eventually, Carlin returned to CU to pursue a master's degree and Ph.D. But he was fueled by a new interest in physics. "The atom bomb had happened, so all at once, it was interesting to go into particle physics," he said. And as he pursued his doctoral degree in 1955, he was involved in several of the major historic scientific events of the day.

One was a form of research that required wire. Lots and lots of wire. Carlin was part of a project to monitor seismic activity, which involved setting up three monitors in Boulder, two miles apart, unspooling wire along fence lines and even to a barn. The goal was to detect motion from distant earthquakes or atomic tests. The project successfully noted at least one such U.S. test. Another time, on the evening of October 4, 1957, he heard that the Russians had launched a satellite, so he and his colleagues hurriedly went to test a long-range radar system they were studying. "Sputnik happened to be going over, and we could basically look out into space, and the radar could see it," he said -- and noted it was one of the very first sightings that happened "just by accident."

Earlier Tries

Not everything happened by accident, of course. Carlin built an early prototype turbine while at the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder as an electrical engineering professor, a gizmo that had magnets around the outside. "It never worked very well," Carlin said simply.

In the fall of 1977, he began a three-semester leave from his professorship to help in the creation of what was the Wind Energy Test Site. Eventually, the lure of NREL (then known as the Solar Energy Research Institute, or SERI) proved too strong, and he retired from CU and joined SERI in 1986.

As the organization pushed for wind energy's future, Carlin consulted with the staff on electrical systems analysis. "He authored some of the seminal analysis papers on variable speed technology and collaborated with many small wind companies of that era on the development of variable speed electrical topologies," NREL Research Fellow Bob Thresher said.

Looking Up

Despite Carlin’s own visions, he never dreamed he would see the giant megawatt-scale turbines towering 90 meters or more, and through the years, wind energy has remained a passion. When asked how long he'll keep coming to work from his Boulder home, Carlin paused, and then said: "I'm having too good a time out here. I'm very pleased I worked at NREL. Everyone here is working because they are doing something they are proud of. Whenever I hear people talking about global warming, I feel proud. We're trying to keep the planet's temperature down. Wind is one way to do that.”

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