Feature Stories

Next Generation

Undergraduate researchers take on the challenges of wind energy
  • a row of wind turbines in a calm sea

The REU program is focused on three key challenges: engineering offshore systems; mitigating environmental impacts; and ensuring support of stakeholders.

The 13-year 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 National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at UMass Amherst comes in. For the next three summers, the REU will annually support 10 undergraduates interested in conducting research in a wide range of offshore wind-energy issues, including engineering, wildlife ecology, and policy. The $357,920 program is titled Offshore Wind Energy: Solving the Engineering, Environmental & Socio-Economic Challenges.

The overarching objectives are to engage a diverse community of undergraduates in the global issue of offshore wind energy, introduce undergraduates 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 the UMass Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) focused on the engineering, environmental impacts, and policy issues surrounding offshore wind energy–established in 2011 with a $3.2 million grant from the NSF. So far this IGERT program has brought together 29 Ph.D. students from six campus departments who are spanning the boundaries among the engineering, environmental science, and policy challenges of renewable energy.

Co-principal investigator Curt Griffin is also a co-PI on the IGERT program and head of environmental conservation, which serves to connect environmental science with policymakers.

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. The undergraduate 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 students from Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges, community colleges, especially Springfield Technical Community College, and North Carolina A&T State University. Additionally, the REU plans to recruit students from 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 program is set up with more than a dozen possible projects the REU students could be working on with their summer research. One project involves the siting of offshore wind farms. 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 wind farm siting.

Another possible project focuses on the spatial ecology of marine birds and mammals in the Gulf of Maine. This research will focus one of the most ecologically and economically productive ecosystems in the world, which also boasts the greatest wind energy potential in the region. Research findings could help to ensure the long-term conservation of habitats, organisms, and ecosystem processes in Maine’s coastal waters. REU students 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 possible project focuses on 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 that effectively adds an additional unsteady component to the instantaneous velocity at the wind turbine blades. The goal of this work will be to optimize wind turbine blades for the floating offshore environment that can mitigate loads while maximizing rotor efficiency.

The Wind Energy REU program enables 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 focused 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.

UMass Amherst News Office