Engineer and software developer, Liz Walls, didn’t start her career in the wind industry. She grew up in Calgary, Alberta, near the center of the oil and gas industry of Canada. So it was no surprise that after graduation she landed a job in the field, and in 2002 began her career as a reservoir engineer in the Alberta oil sands division of Petro-Canada. She found the work challenging and interesting, but Walls was slowly becoming aware of serious environmental issues concerning fossil fuels and oil sands.
“There was one book in particular, From Naked Ape to Superspecies by David Suzuki, which really got me thinking and pushed me in the direction of renewables,” she shares. “I also started to become fascinated with wind power. I saw how quickly the industry was growing at the time, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Not one to hold back in pursuing her dreams, Walls decided that if she wanted to enter the wind industry, she would have to go back to school. “I had a degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in petroleum engineering,” she laughs. “But my dad once told me that if I was ever unsure in life to do the ‘Rocking Chair’ test. You know, where you picture yourself as an old woman or man sitting in the chair, thinking back on your life? You then have to ask yourself if you feel proud or have regrets.”
Walls knew that if she dedicated her career to wind energy, she would pass the Rocking Chair test. So, she researched the best schools to master wind power and in 2005 wrote her Graduate Record Exam for U-Mass’ Renewable Energy Research Laboratory (RERL) — the longest-running wind-energy research laboratory in North America. She got accepted, but there were limited spaces that year.
“To show how much I wanted in, I flew to Massachusetts to visit RERL’s Director, Dr. James Manwell,” says Walls. “He loved that I was ‘coming from the dark side’ as he put it in reference to the oil and gas sector. He also liked that I knew how to code in terms of computer programming.” Late that summer, Walls left her job at the Alberta oil sands and moved down to Massachusetts.
“I started my Master’s degree that fall and was immediately given a research project. For the next two years, I studied advanced mechanical engineering and conducted various experiments with SODAR units,” Walls explains. SODAR is a meteorological instrument that profiles wind by measuring the reflection of sound waves by atmospheric turbulence. The experience landed her a job at Second Wind (now owned by weather-measurement company, Vaisala), developing the company’s Triton wind profiler.
By 2010, however, Walls took a proverbial seat back in the ‘Rocking Chair,’ and began assessing what she wanted to do next in the wind industry. As fate would have it, she met Jack Kline, who was a well-known pioneer of the American wind industry. “His work revolved around resource assessment and designing wind farms, which was exactly what I wanted to do.” It didn’t take long before Walls joined his meteorological consulting firm, RAM, in California.
For the next few years, she worked alongside Kline, developing the wind-flow modeling software, RAMWind. “Eventually, I decided that I wanted to branch out and continue software development on my own, so I formed Cancalia Engineering & Consulting, acquiring the IP from RAM.”
Walls released Continuum 1.0 wind-flow modeling software in the spring of 2014 and version 2.0 in the fall of 2015. “In 2015, I also published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal, Wind Engineering, which presented the model theory and a case study where Continuum was used at a site with 11 met masts. The wind-speed estimate error was very low at 0.9%. In May 2015, I submitted a U.S. patent application that encompasses the Continuum wind-flow model methodology.”
Despite these successes Walls admits it hasn’t always been easy. “There have been times when it’s felt daunting as a small business owner competing with bigger, more established companies. But each time I’ve reminded myself that this method of wind-flow modeling works and works well, and I know the industry will benefit from it.” Her determination has started to pay off as trial requests for Continuum have begun coming in from North America, as well as South America, Europe, and India.
Although she’s already looking at her accomplishments with pride, Walls says there’s more to come. “I’m proud of what I’ve done so far, but I’ve only just begun,” she states. “Every year, we’re seeing growth in this industry as the price of wind becomes more competitive and as turbine technology and resource-assessment methods mature. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is happening, and I am so grateful to be a part of it.”