The University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Winds of Change

IGERT charts a path for next generation wind energy experts
  • View of offshore wind turbine, Kentish Flats, photo credit: Phil Hollman

The Offshore Wind Energy Program is concentrated into three wide-ranging thrusts: engineering systems and design, ecological assessment, and policy.

Wind energy leads the renewable energy movement; the Global Wind Energy Council reports a 20 percent growth worldwide within the burgeoning industry in 2011 and job creation at a high. In the U.S., however, wind turbine installation continues to present a number of challenges.

With a five-year $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the UMass IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship) Offshore Wind Energy Program is aimed at training the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists to address the technical, environmental and socioeconomic challenges confronting offshore wind farms.

Offshore is likely the key to the success of wind energy in the U.S. Wind turbines meet stronger winds when situated offshore; the higher the wind speed, the more power generated by the turbine. According to Matthew Lackner, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and a wind engineering specialist for the program, one 5-megawatt offshore turbine can power about 1,500 homes.

Not only do offshore turbines capture more wind energy, they are closer to large coastal populations that can efficiently harness the generated power. Lackner points out that the further offshore the turbines, the less potential public “backlash,” which is one reason his research focuses on developing floating offshore platforms that can support wind turbines. Such platforms allow engineers to install wind farms miles from the coast (where visual impacts are minimal) and maximize offshore development, yet thus far only two floating turbines have been implemented successfully. Floating turbines prove difficult from an engineering standpoint as floating systems must withstand strong forces: pulling currents, crashing waves and high-speed wind. Lackner and the engineering team are researching wind turbine aerodynamics, structural controls, geotechnical issues, and condition monitoring to address the technical challenges in the offshore environment.

Many in opposition to wind turbines complain about their aesthetics, that they are unappealing and mar the landscape—which is why part of the wind program is directed at re-thinking turbine design. The team is focused on understanding what matters to the American public and what design elements are the most impactful, as regulatory decisions determine the subsidies wind energy will receive, which are critical to it becoming more cost-competitive.

“I think a lot of it has to do with what people are used to,” says Erin Baker, IGERT Program Director and Associate Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

Offshore wind farms would likely impact marine ecosystems, and one aspect of the program concentrates on modeling such potential impacts. Baker says that the effects are just as likely positive as they are negative. She explains that offshore monitoring is more difficult than for land-based turbines; many of these structures are miles out to sea.

The Offshore Wind Energy Program is concentrated into three wide-ranging thrusts: engineering systems and design, ecological assessment, and policy. Graduate students in the Colleges of Engineering, Natural Sciences, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and the Isenberg School of Management are conducting interdisciplinary projects that delve into these research thrusts. Faculty Co-principal investigators include Curtice Griffin and Andy Danylchuk in the Department of Environmental Conservation, Elisabeth Hamin in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, and Jon McGowan in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. The UMass Wind Energy Center serves as an anchor for the program. The center operates a wind tunnel on the Amherst campus in conjunction with the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, while an experimental 250-kilowatt wind turbine on Mount Tom provides a nearby test bed for the program.

Among the many research projects underway, graduate students Gordon Stewart and Micah Brewer (Mechanical and Industrial Engineering) are developing design and optimization approaches to advance the field, while Andrew Allyn (Environmental Conservation) is analyzing ecosystem impacts and developing marine ecosystem integrity maps to chart the path for offshore wind farms. Ryan Wallace (Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning), is integrating regional plans with economic analysis to better understand the obstacles that stand between wind energy farms and public acceptance in the U.S., and Walt Jaslanek  (Environmental Conservation) is using a range of data (e.g., wind speed, bird activity, income) to build a GIS system that layers location-sensitive geospatial information into one integrated software program.

Baker explains that the program is aimed at fostering this kind of “interdisciplinary perspective” in the students, marking the next generation of wind energy experts.  She explains that a field as complex as wind energy can only advance with a broad outlook, that the planners need to understand the engineering and the engineers need to understand the planning.

“Once we get ourselves organized and figure out how to site things offshore then we’ll probably see a fair amount of growth in offshore wind,” Baker says.

Amanda Drane '12