The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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IGERT Program Catches the Winds of Change

The UMass IGERT Offshore Wind Energy Program, started with a $3.2-million grant from the National Science Foundation in August of 2011, is now spinning at full speed as it generates an interdisciplinary graduate program in offshore wind energy engineering, environmental science, and policy. Some 25 faculty members from nine UMass Amherst departments are currently educating 13 full-time graduate students from five different departments. 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. The program will eventually train 24 doctoral students over the course of five years.

One key problem addressed by the UMass program is that proposed offshore wind farms have often met with stiff public opposition. Think Cape Wind!

As the program expresses its mission, "We believe that a better understanding of technological and environmental constraints as well as public concerns will enable wind farm designs that have a greater likelihood of successful approval and construction."

Wind is the only renewable energy source that is cost-competitive with traditional sources such as gas, coal, oil, and nuclear. As a result, over the past decade wind has become the fastest growing energy source in the world. Installed capacity in the U.S. has increased from 2.5 gigawatts in 2000 to more than 35 gigawatts in 2009. Despite these gains, significantly greater advances are needed to achieve the Department of Energy’s national goal of generating 20 percent of our total electricity from wind by 2030.

Fortunately, the promise of wind is out there, blowing just offshore. The Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that winds within 50 nautical miles of the U.S. coast have the potential to generate an average power of approximately 1,000 gigawatts annually, or more than twice the 436 gigawatts that was the electricity consumption of the United States in 2005.

The big question is will the public cooperate? “In general, it has been surprisingly hard to site wind farms,” explains the program’s Principal Investigator, Erin Baker of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department. “Although they’re clean and the energy is free once you install the equipment, there has often been a public backlash against them. We’re trying to address that in a way that faces this public acceptance problem right from the beginning.”

The challenges of increasing the wind energy market are complex and involve technological, environmental, and policy/regulatory issues. Experience with proposed offshore wind farms in the U.S. to date demonstrates that environmental and policy issues are just as important as solving the engineering challenges. The decade-long delay of the proposed Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, the first offshore wind project proposed in the U.S., underscores the critical need for an integrated, cohesive, multidisciplinary approach to offshore wind energy development that achieves technical excellence while reaching out to the public early in the process.

“That’s one of our main focuses,” says Baker. “Engineers go out, find an environmentally sound site for a wind farm, work out an economical plan for it, and come up with a good engineering design. Then they basically spring it on the public. That just doesn’t work.”

The three dovetailing research thrusts of the offshore wind program reflect an entirely new, more cohesive approach to the issues. The first thrust is engineering offshore wind energy systems. New scientific knowledge and technology advancement are needed for offshore wind energy systems to increase rotor efficiency, improve turbine reliability, and reduce system costs.

A second thrust is ecological assessment and environmental monitoring. The goal of this thrust is to obtain a sound scientific foundation for assessing coastal and marine organisms and aquatic habitats associated with offshore wind turbines, using the proposed Hull offshore wind energy facility as a test bed. Such information is critical to ensure the stewardship of healthy and sustainable ecosystems while providing important human and community benefits. It is also tightly involved with the regulatory review process.

The last and, at this time, most sensitive thrust is to design for public acceptance. Understanding the intersection of public acceptance and technological effectiveness is a critical research need for proposed wind farms. There is a complex relationship between designs of facilities the public will accept and the economic outcomes and technological feasibility of those designs.

The four co-principal investigators for the IGERT graduate program are: Curtice Griffin, Natural Resources Conservation Department; Elisabeth Hamin, Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning Department; Francis Juanes, Natural Resources Conservation Department; and Jon McGowan, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department.

The current set of 13 IGERT students represents an eclectic mix of researchers who can soon form an effective community with the ability to resolve the issues surrounding offshore wind farms from a variety of professional perspectives. They include: Andrew Allyn, Blake Massey, Jen Smetzer, Walt Jaslanek, Kate McClellan, and Pam Loring from the Department of Environmental Conservation; Carson Pete, Micah Brewer, Gordon Stewart, and William LaCava from the MIE department; Robert Darrow of the Political Science Department; Ryan Wallace from the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning; and Wystan Carswell of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.

These pioneering students represent a new generation of offshore wind-energy experts who will be trained, willing, and able to work with the stakeholders and public in an environment of “participatory communication,” which in the near future should make offshore wind farms much more acceptable to the public, at the same time as they are helping to solve the energy crisis. (November 2012)