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Manwell Heads Campus Component of New Six-institution Wind Energy Partnership

James Manwell

James Manwell

An event on August 26 signaled a revolutionary new trend in offshore wind energy throughout Massachusetts and beyond. The Massachusetts Research Partnership in Offshore Wind received $300,000 in funding from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC)’s Renewable Energy Trust. Wind energy pioneer Professor James Manwell of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department is UMass Amherst’s principal investigator (PI) for the new partnership, made up of six Massachusetts academic and research institutions – Northeastern University, Tufts University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The object of the partnership is to develop a multi-disciplinary framework for offshore wind research, focusing on increasing innovation within projects and reducing costs by examining risks, finances, and regulations associated with the industry. It’s meant to be a real game-changer.

As the researchers in the new partnership explained, “In order for our nation to develop its vast offshore wind resource in a manner that respects the ocean environment and its many stakeholders, it is critical that we develop a coordinated, long-term strategic vision for advancing American innovation in this new industry.”

UMass Amherst is the established academic leader of the U.S. wind industry and figuratively wrote the book on wind energy. Manwell said that “Offshore wind energy as a serious concept began at UMass Amherst in the early 1970s with the vision of Professor William Heronemus of the Ocean Engineering Program (then a part of the Department of Civil Engineering).”

Manwell is the director of the Wind Energy Center in the College of Engineering at UMass Amherst. He has worked in the area of renewable energy, especially wind energy, for over 40 years and has received numerous, significant grants and contracts from a number of state and national funding agencies. The co-PIs of the UMass Amherst component of the partnership are Professors Matthew Lackner, Jon McGowan, and Erin Baker of the MIE department and Professors Sanjay Arwade and Don DeGroot of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.

The new partnership is part of a broader initiative to make the Commonwealth a national leader in offshore wind research and development. On August 26, the Baker-Polito Administration announced $700,000 in funding for nine academic and research institutions across Massachusetts to advance studies relating to offshore wind development, building on the Commonwealth’s existing nation-leading offshore wind innovation activities. The funding will support three offshore wind research projects, including the partnership to which UMass Amherst belongs.

“Tapping into the Commonwealth’s world-class academic and research institutions will make Massachusetts a leader in the growing offshore wind sector in the United States,” said Governor Charlie Baker at the announcement event. “These research projects will identify ways to make offshore wind projects more cost-effective and beneficial to the ratepayers of Massachusetts.”

The $700,000 in new funding in Massachusetts was announced on the same weekend that the New York Times Editorial Board published an editorial entitled The Unlimited Power of Ocean Winds . As the Times opined, “Putting windmills offshore, where the wind is stronger and more reliable than on land, could theoretically provide about four times the amount of electricity as is generated on the American grid today from all sources. This resource could be readily accessible to areas on the coasts, where 53 percent of Americans live.

The Times editorial later added that “Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican, recently signed legislation that directs utilities to purchase 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power — or about 2 percent of the total wind-energy capacity of the United States in 2015.”

That legislation forms part of the context for funding the Massachusetts Research Partnership in Offshore Wind, which, over the next 18 months, will create a report and framework for a national offshore wind research agenda that is guided by industry, stakeholders, national laboratories, and collaborators from other states and abroad.  

The partnership plans to take a major step forward through the preparation of the national research agenda that will align the efforts of federal, state, and other entities that share a vision for a prosperous and green renewable energy future through offshore wind.

“We believe that this integrated system-level approach is needed,” the partnership’s researchers noted, “because the development of offshore wind energy generation is a complex system in which many dozens of entities are involved within an immature regulatory and economic marketplace for offshore wind.”

The UMass Amherst component of the partnership will lead the way in three critical research areas involving offshore wind energy. The first is creating suitable design standards crucial to the development of the offshore wind energy industry. “Design standards help to ensure that turbines and their support structures are adequate to the environmental and operating conditions they will experience but also they are not inordinately expensive,” as the UMass Amherst researchers explained. “They provide the framework for the designers and they also offer confidence to the lending institutions and the insurers.” 

The second UMass Amherst component is wind-turbine system modeling. Wind turbine technology continues to evolve, with larger rotors, taller towers, and deeper-water installations. “It is critical to have accurate and efficient models of the wind turbine system behavior, especially when they are located offshore and subjected to wind, waves, and currents, including hurricanes and other extreme events,” said the UMass Amherst researchers. “UMass Amherst has significant expertise in the modeling, simulation, analysis, and validation of offshore wind turbine system behavior and has collaborated with experts in Europe, industry, and national labs in this area.”

The third component is geotechnical issues. “The geotechnical engineering site characterization phase of an offshore wind project provides information on seabed stratigraphic soil units and soil engineering properties for design of turbine support structures,” as the UMass Amherst team explained. “It generally requires the use of specialized vessels/drilling platforms and, coupled with the large size of project areas, makes it a significant part of a project's initial capital investment.”

The new Massachusetts partnership is part of a revolution in renewable wind energy. As the Times editorial concluded, “A few decades ago, the idea of harnessing the power of ocean winds seemed entirely impractical. In the next 10 years, these offshore farms should become commonplace.” (September 2016)