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Feature

Beyond the Bluster
Special Section: Energy

—Karen Skolfield ’98G

Boston looms eight miles in the distance behind Hull Wind One, the town of Hull’s first wind turbine; a second followed this year. Offshore wind farms have the potential to provide all of New England with clean power.
IT'S COLD THE DAY I meet James Manwell ’81G, the shocking cold of midwinter, but there’s not a breath of wind. Snow has thawed and refrozen in the shape of shoe treads, footsteps to and from Gunness Laboratory. It’s the kind of day that Manwell wouldn’t like—not for the cold, or the ice, but for the lack of wind.

Wind, as Manwell will tell you, is an energy source just waiting to be tapped. He’s a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering www.ecs.umass.edu/mie/home.html and director of the first and oldest wind energy program in the United States, the Renewable Energy Research Laboratory www.ceere.org/rerl/ at UMass Amherst. The day we talk, a massive wind turbine headed for Hull, Massachusetts, has just reached Boston Harbor. Manwell beams.

“Oh, this is going to be big,” he says gleefully. “It’ll make the first one look like a toy.” He backs off of his hyperbole a bit: “Not really. It’s not too big. But it would put Hull on the map, if it weren’t already.”

As many Massachusetts residents know, the “first one” to which Manwell refers is Hull Wind One, the first commercial-scale wind turbine to operate on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, just eight (mostly nautical) miles from Boston. It’s been online since 2001, and this spring, thanks to Manwell and others, it got a big brother. A very big brother. www.hullwind.org/

Hull Wind Two stands 250 feet tall at the center, with a rotor diameter of over 260 feet—twice the rotor diameter of Hull Wind One. More important, the combined energy output of the turbines is projected to equal more than 12 percent of Hull’s energy use. It’s no wonder Manwell, and Hull’s residents, embraced the idea.

Manwell and his laboratory got involved in Hull Wind One when it was just a tiny gleam in the eyes of a few Hull residents. The residents contacted the Massachusetts Division of Energy Resources, who contacted Manwell. He headed three years of wind turbine feasibility studies, noise studies, soil investigation, site planning, and attended a “whole series of town meetings,” says Manwell, working to combat the misconceptions about wind power. “But people are way more worried about these things before they see them—the older turbines were noisier and not as good-looking.”

At least in my presence, Manwell does not romanticize wind power, does not mention how natural tidal breezes can keep the planet pure for the generations to come. He’s an engineer, and he’ll remind me of this at least twice in the next hour. “Engineers like to solve problems. We like this. We’ve gone to the moon, so we can do this,” he says, waving his hand at the turbine model on his desk but I understand he is speaking more broadly of technological advances in renewable energy.

But technology must be applied for it to be useful. Hull took the leap and now reaps the rewards. “We were glad to have Jim and his people,” says John MacLeod, operations manager for the Hull Municipal Light Plant and a Hull resident. “They’re a good resource, and their predictions are right on.”

Those predictions, including the amount of wind available and energy harnessed, have turned into a savings of $185,000 per year for Hull residents from Hull Wind One, and a third of the electricity generated goes to powering the town’s traffic and street lights. Red lights, green lights, the glow of streetlamps, made possible by the wind.

For those not already devotees of wind power, it makes you eye up the breezes with a little more respect. That’s how Manwell and his former and current students live, always with an eye toward this largely untapped source of power. “Jim must have carried around that little (turbine) model in his briefcase for 20 years, shopping it around,” MacLeod quips.

Manwell admits that isn’t far from the truth. “You get attracted to wind turbines and want to keep working with them,” Manwell says. “It’s like a disease.”

A more appropriate word would be passion. Manwell completed his doctoral work here in 1981 as a student of William Heronemus: “He had enough vision for hundreds of people, for thousands of years,” Manwell says about his mentor who passed away in 2002. “To his credit, none of his ideas were out of the realm of feasibility.” As a student, Manwell was one of the crew that worked on “WF-1,” the largest wind turbine in the United States in the 1970s. WF-1 graced the UMass Amherst campus until 2004, and it is now dismantled and being prepared for exhibit at the Smithsonian.

Manwell became director of what’s now called the Renewable Energy Research Laboratory in 1986. He and Jon McGowan, the only other faculty member in RERL, lead eight students in projects that are linked mainly to wind and solar power: both on- and offshore wind energy assessments, desalination projects, remote power projects.

Alumni of the program saturate the renewable energy field. Manwell rattles off a sampling of where our graduates are without glancing at a Rolodex: government (National Wind Technology Center www.nrel.gov/wind/ ); manufacturing (the wind division of GE Energy, Northern Power Systems); field engineering (Oak Creek Energy Systems www.oakcreekenergy.com/ ); consulting firms (Garrad Hassan, Global Energy Concepts www.globalenergyconcepts.com/ ), to name just a few. I finally have to stop him, or his off-the-top-of-his-head list could take up pages.

In earlier years, the lab and its members designed equipment such as wind turbines but now concentrate wholly on data analysis, modeling, and feasibility studies, all of which were used for Hull Wind One and Two.

“Almost without exception, all of our students who want to work in wind, stay in wind,” he says. “There are more and more jobs in wind and wind energy.”

It’s why students such as Elizabeth Walls ’07G, who estimated wind speeds for the Hull Wind Two project, came to UMass Amherst. After working for the oil and gas industry in Canada as an engineer, she decided to revamp her career. “I want to help the global situation versus making it worse,” she says. “Wind technology is still new and evolving, and wind energy is really booming here. It’s an exciting field to be in.”

Let there be no misconception about the size of the turbines in Hull: At 165 feet tall, Hull Wind One is more than half the length of a football field. At 250 feet tall, Hull Wind Two is well within field goal range.

What’s surprising is how elegant they are, with their crisp, contemporary lines. MacLeod of the Hull Municipal Light Plant tells me that he’s heard them called beautiful more than once, and always in a tone of voice that indicates amazement. “I tell people you have to see it for yourself,” he says.

Hull Wind One sits, appropriately, on a spit of land named Windmill Point, where a windmill once turned seawater into valuable salt. Hull Wind Two, across town from its little sibling, is sited on a more unusual piece of property—a capped landfill. For a professor that deals in all things renewable, it’s an especially sweet idea. “No one’s put a turbine on a landfill in the United States, or perhaps anywhere else. But you’ve got this pile of garbage—it’s old refrigerators and bedsprings and things decaying. You have to do this right or the thing’s going to look like a leaning Tower of Pisa.”

Sixty feet of pilings and foundation later, and there’s no lean. Two turbines is quite forward-thinking, especially for this small town of just 11,500 residents. The start-up cost for Hull Wind One was about $750,000; for Two, $3 million. “But Hull said the town will be here tomorrow, and they were thinking of the future,” Manwell says.

That’s putting it mildly. Because Hull’s not done, which means Manwell and his team aren’t done, either.

In the works are an offshore wind farm and a desalination plant. The turbines appear to be a hit: “The town wants to know why the offshore [turbines] aren’t there yet,” MacLeod says.
His reply: They’re working on it. Hull is setting up the first geotech study, which is where UMass Amherst will likely be involved, for four turbines planned to spin 1.6 miles offshore. If it’s a go, as MacLeod hopes it will be within two years, Hull’s wind farm could be the first offshore facility in the United States, and with the help of Hull Wind One and Two it would supply nearly all of the town’s power needs.

Then there are the plans for a desalination plant. Fresh water has long been an issue for coastal Massachusetts towns. “We’re surrounded by water we currently can’t use,” MacLeod tells me. Manwell and his group, of course, already have their eyes on this project.
There’s no reason these big plans can’t happen, Manwell says, especially given the success of Hull’s first two wind turbines.

“How far can we go with renewable energy resources?” Manwell wonders. “The potential in raw kilowatts off the New England coast is enormous, it’s truly enormous. There’s enough wind to supply all of New England’s power needs.”

Passion for wind energy—the disease, as Manwell calls it—is producing some serious results. “People are thinking more about energy than they used to as energy prices rise,” Manwell says. With the success of Hull, other coastal Massachusetts towns—Barnstable, Falmouth, Truro, and others— are considering turbines.

It’s a good time to be in wind, but it keeps Manwell and his crew exceptionally busy. In his office, there hangs a calendar devoted to wind energy, with photos of turbines in California, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Idaho. Although it’s early in 2006, his calendar is stuck on September 2005, and the 2006 calendar is waiting in his in-bin. “My life was hectic before,” he tells me. “Now…” he waves at the outdated calendar.

Maybe Manwell will wait for the 2007 wind energy calendar to make the switch. And maybe, thanks to his work and the efforts of many others, Massachusetts will grace one of its pages.


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