The man who assisted in establishing what is now the National Wind Technology Center in 1977, now part of NREL, still comes to work at the Center most days. Palmer Carlin grew up in the 1920s on a prairie farm in Wiley, Colorado, where he tinkered with spare engine parts, a hobby that provided useful training for a coming engineering career. Not surprising, Carlin’s early training is similar and common to many wind pioneers.
His route to the Center had its share of twists and turns. For instance, WWII took him off the farm and to the Colorado University Boulder campus as part of the second class of CU’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps. The group often started the day performing “calijumpic” exercises at dawn before getting cleaned up and dressed in uniform for class. Gas and food were rationed so 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.
“Meeting new people from all over was educational for me,” he said. After all, his high school graduation class had only 19 members. He graduated with an electrical engineering degree in 1945.
Carlin eventually returned to CU to pursue a master’s degree and Ph.D.—but he was fueled by a new interest in physics, which he began teaching to undergrads. “The atom bomb had been developed, 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.
Carlin built an early prototype turbine while at CU Boulder as an electrical engineering professor—a gizmo that had magnets around the outside. “It never worked very well,” he admits. Despite his initial vision, he never dreamed he would see the giant megawatt-scale turbines towering 90 meters and more.
In the fall of 1977, Carlin took a three-semester leave from his professorship to help create at the time as Wind Energy Test Site south of Boulder in a buffer zone adjacent to the former Rocky Flats Atomic Energy Installation. The Site was later renamed the NWTC. He recalls the only things on site were a couple trailers, and he would travel with other early pioneers to work with developers on small 10 and 20-kilowatt wind turbines. But Carlin was more than an observer.
Eventually, the lure of NREL (then called the Solar Energy Research Institute, or SERI) proved too strong, so in 1986 he retired from CU and joined SERI. As the organization pushed for wind’s future, Carlin’s role was perhaps a bit more complex than he lets on. Colleagues heap praise on him. “We worked together in the 1970s to set up the small wind systems research efforts here at what was then the Rocky Flats Small Wind Systems Test Center,” said NREL Research Fellow Bob Thresher.
Thresher also noted that 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.”
Today, three afternoons a week, 91-year-old Palmer Carlin still comes into the Energy Department’s National Wind Technology Center to begin the continuation of his career.