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WEC Faculty and Alumni Set Sail for First U.S. Offshore Wind Farm to Celebrate Program’s Momentous History

Wind Turbines off Block Island Shore in Massachusetts
Wind Energy Center Faculty and Alums on Block Island

Professor James Manwell and Wind Energy Center Alums on Block Island

On the weekend of October 30, an intrepid group of offshore-wind-energy experts took a blustery pilgrimage by sailboat to view the first offshore wind farm ever established in the United States. The five wind turbines, just south of Block Island, make up the 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm, built by Deepwater Wind of Providence. The trip – taken by several faculty and alumni of what is now called the University of Massachusetts Wind Energy Center (WEC) and their colleagues from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory – proved to be a stormy experience that embodied the very power of the term “offshore wind energy.”

“It was quite a storm,” says James Manwell, a professor in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department and the director of the UMass Wind Energy Center, “with a lot of waves.” Wind energy, indeed!

Manwell and friends took the voyage in part to commemorate the historic role that our wind energy program has played in the development of offshore wind energy. They wanted to see the first American offshore wind farm that symbolizes that decisive history. And their adventure proved totally successful, despite bouts of seasickness, the loss and recovery of the sailboat’s dinghy, general discomfort, and the failure of the sailboat’s diesel engine (which our mechanical engineers were deftly able to repair at sea).

“We took this trip partly as a celebration that the technology has finally come home [to America and New England],” says Manwell. “It’s great to see all these plans we’ve been working on for so long come to something and prove that it has been a good idea all along. A perfectly sensible idea! I really got a sense of satisfaction that the engineering we had thought made perfect sense has finally come to fruition.”

WEC alumni on the trip included Benjamin Bell (BSME/MSME), Walter Musial (BSME/MSME), Brian Smith (BSME/MSME), Brian McNiff (MSME), and Manwell (MSECE/PHDME). Others on the trip included one of the turbine designers, Albert Fisas Camañes, from GE Renewables, Alex Lemke, Philipp Beiter (both from NREL), and Pulitzer Prize winning NREL photographer Dennis Schroeder, who took wonderful photos of the event. Once they landed on Block Island, the group was met and given a tour of the terrestrial facilities by another wind energy pioneer, Henry Dupont.

“It would be fitting to acknowledge the versatility of a UMass education that produced two fine seafaring captains who guided us through the storm to safe harbor,” says Smith about two of the UMass alums. “Those were Brian McNiff and Ben Bell.”

Now called the WEC, our program is a leader in wind energy engineering nationally and internationally. Since 1972 the WEC by various names has worked diligently to maintain and enhance its important wind energy education programs and research activities. The first American courses in wind energy were taught here, and the WEC runs the nation’s foremost graduate research program in wind energy. The wind energy program at UMass was founded by graduate research program in wind energy. The wind energy program at UMass was founded by Professor (and former U.S. Navy Captain) William Heronemus, a visionary who is known around the world as the “Father of Modern Wind Power” and inventor of the offshore wind farm concept, wind turbine arrays, the windship, the wind furnace, and the offshore hydrogen flotilla idea.

In addition to the WEC, the MIE department is also home to the $3.2-million NSF IGERT program in offshore wind energy engineering, environmental science, and policy. The goal of the program is to create a community of researchers who understand the technological challenges, environmental implications, and socioeconomic and regulatory hurdles of offshore wind farms.

With all this momentous engineering history in mind, Manwell and his colleagues gathered in Newport, RI, on September 30 for their voyage to Block Island to see all the wind-energy work they had been visualizing for several decades finally materialize into five graceful wind turbines with 270-foot-tall towers, each with a total weight of approximately 440 tons.

But, predictably, seeing them wouldn’t be easy. According to Manwell, “unbelievable rain” and gale winds would delay their venture for the first day, so they were forced to find docking space and safe harbor in Newport for their 45-foot rented sailboat and settle in for the night. “We all came to conclusion that this [challenging the storm] would be insanity,” says Manwell.

By morning conditions had improved enough for the dauntless voyagers to set sail for Block Island, “but it was still plenty windy,” recalls Manwell. “Once we got out into the sound, it was very blustery. Then we lost the dinghy, but we somehow salvaged it after it broke its tow line. We were still able to grab the dinghy and bring it on board.”

The group couldn’t land on any of the turbines due to Deepwater Wind’s safety policy and, in any case, the waves were too high. But, don’t forget, they had one of the turbine designers onboard, so they were able to sail in and about the turbines and get an engineer’s viewpoint of the huge machines and what they can do.

And what they can do is quite a lot. This proven technology is already used around the globe to harness the strong and steady ocean winds off our shores, transform them into clean, cost-effective electricity, and transmit that power to where it is needed most. According the U.S. Department of Energy, “Data on the technical resource potential suggest more than 2,000 gigawatts could be accessed in state and federal waters along the coasts of the United States and the Great Lakes.”

According to Deepwater, building an offshore wind industry in the U.S. will also create thousands of jobs. Today, the offshore wind industry in Europe employs nearly 60,000 workers, and there are more than 2,500 wind turbines spinning in the ocean off the coast of Europe. Developing an offshore wind industry right here in America will increase our nation’s competitiveness in the energy sector, revitalize industrial ports, bolster the manufacturing sector, and create good, high-paying jobs for years to come.

Deepwater Wind is making offshore wind in America a reality by actively planning more offshore wind projects to serve multiple East Coast markets, including New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. And Manwell and his colleagues were there to see this grand idea, which had first been invented and developed right here at UMass, become a fait accompli and trigger a whole new era of sustainable energy production in the U.S.

As Manwell says, “After our trip to the Block Island Wind Farm I was pretty excited. I thought I was seeing the start of a whole new energy source.” (November 2016)