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NSF Project Will Support 10 Undergraduates per Summer for Research in Offshore Wind Energy

Erin Baker

The 13-year-long delay in the proposed Cape Wind project in Massachusetts reveals the critical need for an integrated approach to offshore wind energy development that works mutually toward an efficient, sustainable energy source and public education, input, and acceptance.

This difficult task calls for a new generation of multidisciplinary researchers. That’s where a new National-Science-Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst comes in. For the next three summers, this REU will annually support 10 undergraduates interested in exploring research in a wide range of offshore wind-energy topics, including engineering, wildlife ecology, and policy. The $357,920 REU program is called “Offshore Wind Energy: Solving the Engineering, Environmental & Socio-Economic Challenges.” The program is now accepting applications [doc] for the 2015 Wind Energy REU program with a deadline of February 13, 2015. If you have any questions about the program, please contact Lorraine Robidoux (lrobidou@ecs.umass.edu) for more information. Visit REU website: http://engineering.umass.edu/research/reu.

As the REU proposal concludes, “Our goal is to educate a new generation of researchers able to integrate engineering, environmental, and social sciences to better position the U.S. in global competitiveness in wind energy.”

The overarching objectives are to engage a diverse community of undergraduate students in the global issue of offshore wind energy, introduce undergraduate students to cutting edge interdisciplinary collaborations, and encourage students to pursue graduate research in wind energy. The REU program is focused on three key challenges: engineering offshore wind energy systems; assessing and mitigating environmental impacts; and incorporating economic, social, and policy concerns into a grand design for public acceptance.

REU Principal Investigator Erin Baker is also the director of a UMass IGERT project – entitled “Offshore Wind Energy Engineering, Environmental Impacts, and Policy” – established with a $3.2-million grant from the NSF in 2011. So far this IGERT program has brought together 29 Ph.D. students from six departments on campus who are spanning the boundaries among the engineering, environmental science, and policy challenges of renewable energy.

REU Co-Principal Investigator Curtice Griffin is also a co-PI on the IGERT program and the department head of Environmental Conservation, which serves to connect environmental science with policy makers.

Integrating the REU with the IGERT will help develop well-rounded researchers at both the undergraduate and graduate levels of education who are acquiring the multidisciplinary background needed to design wind energy systems that better address the complex challenges of wind energy. These young researchers will also be well-schooled in design policies and regulations that enable wind energy technology and development, while also addressing stakeholder concerns and bridging the communication gaps between industry, various stakeholder groups, and academia.

The REU project is targeting students from a diverse range of academic, social, and economic backgrounds, including undergraduates from Smith and Mt. Holyoke Colleges, local community colleges, especially Springfield Technical Community College, and North Carolina A&T State University. Additionally, the REU plans to recruit students from various UMass diversity groups: the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineering, National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Women Engineers, Society of American Military Engineers, and the Center for Multicultural Student Success.

The REU program has already outlined a dozen possible projects that the REU students could be working on with their summer research. For example, one project is called “Offshore Wind Farm Siting as a Robust Portfolio Problem.” One of the greatest barriers to offshore wind is resolving the conflict among all of the uses and interests in the space the farms will occupy as well as managing the potential for ecological impacts. This research will develop a framework for incorporating the range of different impacts of offshore wind development at different scales into robust windfarm siting.

Another possible REU project could be the “Spatial Ecology of Marine Birds and Mammals in the Gulf of Maine.” This research will study one of the most ecologically and economically productive ecosystems in the world, which also boasts the greatest wind energy potential in the region. This project will help to ensure the long-term conservation of habitats, organisms, and ecosystem processes in Maine’s coastal waters. REU student would participate in at-sea surveys to collect data on marine birds and mammals as part of the ongoing project to map the biological hotspots in the Gulf of Maine.

A third possibility is the “Optimization of Wind Turbine Rotor Design for Floating Offshore Platforms.” Wind turbines on offshore floating platforms operate in a more unsteady environment than typical onshore systems. Wind and wave loading cause platform motion which effectively adds an additional unsteady component to the instantaneous velocity at the wind turbine blades. The goal of this work would be to optimize wind turbine blades for the floating offshore environment that can mitigate loads while maximizing rotor efficiency.

The Wind Energy REU program will allow undergraduates to perform hands-on summer research while earning a stipend of $500 per week for eight to 10 weeks. Participating students can also receive support for housing and eligible travel expenses. In addition to mentored research projects and a hands-on research field trip, students will participate in weekly seminars on professional development and on the state of the art in wind energy research. This program provides undergraduates with a unique opportunity to network and collaborate with leaders in the field of wind energy. (February 2015)