Graduate program focused on offshore wind energy training its first class of students
An interdisciplinary graduate program in offshore wind energy engineering, environmental science and policy is now up and running with 25 faculty members from nine departments working with 13 full-time graduate students. The goal of the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) Offshore Wind Energy Program is to train researchers who understand the technological challenges, environmental implications and socioeconomic and regulatory hurdles faced by offshore wind farms.
The program was started with a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation in August 2011 and will eventually train 24 doctoral students over five years.
The challenge of increasing the wind energy market is complex. 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 off the coast of Massachusetts, the first offshore wind project proposed in the U.S., underscores the critical need for an integrated, cohesive, multidisciplinary approach to developing offshore wind energy. It also highlights the need to reach out to the public early in the process.
Erin Baker, associate professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, outlines the situation this way. She says, “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.”
Baker says the new program is geared to deal with a set of interlocking issues. The first 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 is ecological assessment and environmental monitoring. The goal is to obtain a sound scientific foundation for assessing coastal and marine organisms and aquatic habitats associated with offshore wind turbines, using the Cape Cod area and the Gulf of Maine as test beds. 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 third and most sensitive area is to design the systems that will receive public support. 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.
While the technical obstacles are daunting, the payoff could be huge. The U.S. 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 of 1,000 gigawatts annually, or more than twice the 436 gigawatts of electricity used in the United States in 2005.
Wind is also the only renewable energy source that is cost-competitive with traditional sources such as gas, coal, oil and nuclear. As a result, during 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.
The four co-leaders for the IGERT graduate program are Curtice Griffin, Environmental Conservation; Elisabeth Hamin, Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning; Andy Danylchuk, Environmental Conservation, and Jon McGowan, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.
The current 13 IGERT students are Andrew Allyn, Blake Massey, Jen Smetzer, Walt Jaslanek, Kate McClellan and Pam Loring from Environmental Conservation; Carson Pete, Micah Brewer, Gordon Stewart, and William LaCava from Mechanical Engineering; Robert Darrow, Political Science; Ryan Wallace, Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, and Wystan Carswell, Civil and Environmental Engineering.