Harnessing the Power of the Wind
“In the immediate future, we can expect the ‘energy gap’ to result in a series of crises as peak loads are not met. The East Coast will be dependent on foreign sources for most of its oil and gas. The environment will continue to deteriorate in spite of ever-increasing severity of controls. Air pollution, oil spills and thermal pollution are likely to be worse, not better in 1985. In the face of the continuing dilemma: ‘power vs. pollution,’ a third alternative [to nuclear and fossil energy] must be sought. It may be found in the many and varied nonpolluting energy sources known to exist in the US or its offshore aggregate. These energy sources, tied together in a national network, could satisfy a significant fraction of our total power needs in the year 2000.”
This revolutionary vision for a renewable energy future was articulated in 1971 by William Heronemus, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor of civil engineering, in a research proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF). Widely known as the “father of modern windpower,” Heronemus is credited with building some of the first modern wind turbines; inventing the wind turbine array and offshore hydrogen flotilla ideas, among others; and coining widely used terms like “windfarm.”
In 1972, when few were studying wind as an energy source, Heronemus and other UMass Amherst faculty at the College of Engineering established the Energy Alternatives Program, which included the Wind Power Group, at the university. Over the past half century, UMass Amherst has been at the center of major developments in the wind power industry, and today is supporting a major new push into offshore wind energy through academic research, education, and service to government and industry. As it celebrates its 50th anniversary this fall, the Wind Energy Center will honor a number of distinguished alumni who have made significant contributions to the wind industry.
Early Days of Wind Energy
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the faculty members who founded UMass’s Energy Alternatives Program were ahead of their time in considering wind seriously as a possible energy source. When Heronemus proposed the idea of offshore wind, it seemed nearly impossible.
“It’s always hard to predict the future, but I don’t think many people realized the potential in wind,” said James Manwell, then an engineering graduate student who studied under Heronemus and others. “In those days, wind turbines were really small and were almost never used to feed electricity into the grid.”
Though carbon dioxide wasn’t yet widely recognized as a major environmental threat, other pollutants were causing concern, and there was a growing drive to find alternatives to oil and gas. Many saw nuclear power as the way of the future, yet the UMass group focused its efforts on sources such as wind, solar, and ocean thermal energy conversion.
Between 1973 and 1976, Heronemus and other faculty and students designed and constructed the WF-1, which at the time was the largest operating wind turbine in the U.S. and is widely considered the country’s first “modern” turbine. “It was the germ of many modern developments in turbine design,” said Manwell.
Manwell went on to become a UMass Amherst professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and founding director of the Wind Energy Center (WEC), which evolved out of the Energy Alternatives Program. With colleagues Jon McGowan and Anthony Rogers, he authored the leading textbook found in wind energy graduate education settings worldwide, titled, Wind Energy Explained: Theory, Design and Application. Manwell is currently working on the third edition of the text, which has substantial updates due to how much the science has advanced. “There’s been just a tremendous evolution in how people are solving these problems,” he said.
Winds of Change
Today, wind is the fastest growing and cheapest new form of electricity after solar—less expensive than coal, natural gas, and nuclear power, according to Matthew Lackner, WEC director and professor of mechanical and industrial engineering. Onshore wind farms are common across the Midwest, where abundant open space, relatively few trees, and low population density allow for enough wind energy production to meet a significant portion of local energy needs.
In more densely populated regions, such as the Northeast, offshore wind is a better bet, but it has been slower and more complicated to develop, Lackner explained.
“The ocean is a challenging environment in which to operate turbines,” he said. Structures need to either float or be installed on a substructure that extends down to the sea floor, while contending with waves, corrosive sea salt, and other factors. Transmitting electricity produced by offshore turbines is also complicated, from both a technical and regulatory standpoint. Offshore turbines are much larger than their onshore counterparts, with blades more than 100 meters long and capacity between 10 to 15 megawatts (MW). As a result, there are only a handful of offshore turbines in the U.S. today such as the 30 MW Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island.
The technology has changed so much both in terms of scale and costs. Wind has evolved into an extremely competitive, affordable, massive energy source, which is pretty cool.
However, this seems poised to change. The Biden-Harris Administration has set a priority to dramatically scale up production of clean energy sources, and has taken a number of steps to increase offshore wind development. Likewise in Massachusetts, the legislature is considering a major bill to expand wind energy production, and work has started on the Vineyard Wind 1 offshore wind energy project off the southern Massachusetts coast. In 2021, nine other large offshore wind projects moved forward in Northeast states.
In recent years, research at the WEC is driving advances in offshore wind technologies. The research of its faculty—who represent mechanical, civil, and industrial engineering, and environmental conservation—spans a broad range of topics related to offshore wind, including blades and turbines, foundations and anchors, soils, grid integration, and the interactions of wildlife with turbines.
Interdisciplinary collaboration between these experts is key to the center’s impact, said Lackner. “Wind energy is a highly interdisciplinary application. It's critical to have engineers who understand how technology interacts with wildlife, or wildlife ecologists who understand how turbines work, and to have students who collaborate across disciplines."
WEC also works with other interdisciplinary campus groups on the transition to renewable energy, including the Energy Transition Institute (ETI); with researchers at other universities; and with groups including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC). WEC faculty share research at technical conferences, testify at public hearings, and write op-eds for general audiences.
WEC faculty and students on Block Island in 2019.
As offshore wind expands in Massachusetts and other states, the WEC faculty will be closely watching how these installations perform and how costs evolve over time.
“The technology has changed so much both in terms of scale and costs. Wind has evolved into an extremely competitive, affordable, massive energy source, which is pretty cool,” said Lackner.
Additionally, floating offshore wind, which Heronemus first conceived of in the 1970s and which has been a major research focus for the center, is just starting to become a reality. It is likely to take off first in places with deep water—such as the Great Lakes, Oregon, California, and Hawaii. The WEC currently has several industry research partnerships focused on floating offshore wind.
An open question is how renewables like wind and solar will integrate into the overall energy supply as the world transitions away from fossil fuels. Manwell pointed to critical research being done at the Center on energy storage as well as “green” fuels, such as hydrogen and ammonia, which are produced using electricity generated by wind and solar.
Training the Next Generation
The WEC is also an important resource for training highly skilled workers in the wind industry. It offers courses for undergraduate and graduate students on the fundamentals of wind energy, wind turbine design, and offshore wind energy, and graduate students can earn a Wind Energy Certificate. In addition to teaching fundamental knowledge on wind energy, WEC offers students practical training in powerful software programs that simulate the performance of wind turbines—a highly sought-after skill for those working in the industry. Both graduate and undergraduate students also participate in research with faculty at the center.
Kaylie McTiernan is a mechanical engineering PhD student from Gloucester who works with Lackner and several other faculty members at the WEC. Her research focuses on floating offshore wind energy and, specifically, on identifying platform scaling relations as wind turbines grow larger in size and power rating. She plans to publish her results in an academic journal this spring.
McTiernan was drawn to UMass Amherst and the WEC for her PhD because of its strong and long-standing program in wind energy. “There’s a lot to learn from the past,” she said.
She is also passionate about educating younger students on wind energy. She has taught courses both at UMass and Mount Holyoke College; mentored an undergraduate through the NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program; and participated in outreach programs for grade-school students. She plans to teach at the college level after completing her doctorate.
Through the WEC, McTiernan enjoys opportunities to network with and learn from graduate students in other disciplines such as economics and environmental conservation, and with alumni who have gone on to work at the NREL and at wind energy companies. “It’s been a great experience to learn from other students, hear different perspectives, and find areas where our research can overlap,” she said.
Doron Rose, a mechanical engineering graduate student from New Haven, Conn., was drawn to UMass by the WEC’s excellent reputation. “Through research and coursework, I’ve gained a ton of experience in coding, data analysis, and turbine simulation. Those are the main skills that helped me land an internship for after I graduate” at a wind turbine manufacturer, where he’ll work on blade design and blade analysis.
Rose added, “I’ve always wanted to get into engineering work in wind energy. UMass has definitely given me the skills to do that.”
This story was originally published in February 2022.
Learn more about the groups at UMass Amherst doing work on renewables and the energy transition.