Power to the People

By Mark Cherrington

jim manwell
Jim Manwell '70 

Walking into Jim Manwell’s office at the University of Massachusetts, you wouldn’t have a clue that this is the heart of the country’s premier facility for cutting-edge renewable energy research. The building in which the office is located is small, squat and nondescript, like a 1950s military installation—not old enough to have any charm or identifiable style but too old to have any creature comforts. Most people on campus don’t even know that it exists. The building’s lackluster impression is only amplified when you open the door to Jim Manwell’s office: your first thought is that it must be some sort of joke.

Manwell’s office is so narrow that you almost have to slide in sideways, like an Egyptian hieroglyphic figure come to life. Though it’s deep and tall, the room is only as wide as his single window. One wall of this tunnel is lined with file cabinets, and the other is lined with bookshelves, the bottom-most shelf of which is widened to a ledge that serves as Manwell’s overflowing desk. Between the cabinets and the desk edge there is about two feet of space. The climate control system in this state-of-the-art energy research facility consists of a steam radiator that Manwell has to jump up and adjust every few minutes as the room swings between far too hot and uncomfortably cold. Above it, built inexplicably high into the wall above the window, is an old air conditioner, its plug dangling useless six feet in the air.

In many ways, this sad little office building, surrounded as it is by gleaming new computer centers and labs, reflects the position that renewable energy holds in the United States. Here in the land of innovation, renewable energy is a technological orphan, ignored by the mainstream energy engineers and decision makers, who consider it the province of dreamers and former hippies; and largely avoided by the public, who tend to believe that alternative approaches to energy, like windmills and photovoltaic cells, are intrusive, unreliable and expensive. Spain, Denmark, Germany and China all installed more wind turbines last year than the United States, which claims only 15 percent of the wind energy generated globally.

Fortunately, Jim Manwell ’70 thrives on a challenge. In fact, it’s hard to imagine him sitting in a spacious stainless steel and glass tower office with carpeted floors and designer lamps. This tiny old office suits him beautifully. Manwell has snow-white hair and a white beard, which might lead you think he is older than he is, but the impish gleam in his eye, his vigor and his willingness to say outrageous things give away his true background: He’s a child of the ’60s and a true believer, but with a twist.

Someone once described the ’60s as being like “a movie where everyone went out for the intermission, and no one came back for the second half.” Jim Manwell did, in fact, come back for the rest of the movie, but he snuck in the back door and decided to write his own script. He participated in all the protests and demonstrations, rode a Triumph motorcycle and generally sought his own road. He says he still has a T-shirt somewhere that has a raised fist on it, and his speech is peppered with terms like “bummer.” One of the issues that was most important to Manwell in those days was nuclear power, a concern that was brought into high relief by the proposal to build a nuclear power plant in Montague, just north of Amherst.

brown manwell
Malcolm Brown '56 (left) and Jim Manwell '70 in front of the product of their partnership, a Vestas V-47 wind turbine, which provides 660 kilowatts of power for the town of Hull, Mass. 

While many people of that generation were content just to complain about the status quo, Manwell decided to do something about it. “The constructive approach was more my thing,” he says. “It still is. You can’t just go around saying ‘no’ all the time. At some point you have say, ‘OK, we’ll do this instead.’ He tells the story of how one 1975 antinuclear protest destroyed a large tower associated with the Montague project. “Sam Lovejoy [’69] was the guy who did that,” he says. “I wasn’t there, but I was sympathetic. I was in graduate school then; I was always collecting wind data, and I was getting good data from Northeast Utilities, who owned the nuclear plant. And at one point after the trial I was joking with him that by knocking the tower down he ruined my data collection.”

Although the combination of alternative politics and antinuclear involvement might lead one to assume that Manwell’s path toward renewable energy was predestined, his actual course wandered a bit.

His choice of Amherst, at least, was a foregone conclusion: Manwell’s grandfather was an alumnus, as were his uncle and his brother, and his grandmother was a Dickinson. But his interest then was not wind energy or anything close to it. “My plan was to do marine archaeology,” he says. “Then I was thinking maybe I’d do oceanography or something. Then there was this guy there who suggested that no matter what I was going to do I should study physics for some reason. He thought biophysics would have a lot of application to what I was interested in. So I decided to major in biophysics, and I got a degree in that.” As he considers a bit more this apparent disconnect between his undergraduate work and his subsequent life and the value of his time at the college, he says, “Amherst gives you the big picture. It gives you not just the learning, but confidence, the idea that you can do anything.”

After graduation, Manwell took a detour, opting to work for a few years as a car mechanic, but his interest in science, math and computers combined with his antinuclear concerns to drive him to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts. He originally thought he would go to medical school (“I figured if I could fix cars I could fix people”), but quickly turned instead to mechanical engineering, to pursue alternative energy research. He earned his doctorate in 1981, and five years later he was named the director of the University of Massachusetts’ Renewable Energy Research Laboratory, which, despite the homely surroundings, has become the country’s leading center for research into and education about systems that combine renewable and conventional generators. He’s gone on to be the U.S. representative to the International Energy Agency’s Wind/Hybrid Energy Program and is a wind-energy consultant to the United Nations. He’s also one of the authors of the textbook Wind Energy Explained.

“When I was at Amherst,” Manwell says, “I didn’t give energy per se a whole lot of thought; it was more that I was looking for a way to do something progressive in the world. I probably didn’t understand the extent to which energy issues underlay all these environmental issues, the nuclear issues and all these things that I had been interested in. But oil, the quest for resources, imperial power, all these things were integrally related in a way that allowed me to have an input that I didn’t expect. I guess it was always there, but it just never sunk in that this was the route to take. Your life kind of lines up backwards better than it does forward, I guess.”

Manwell may have a degree in engineering, but his work—and his passion—have as much to do with society, culture and politics as with technology. This is perhaps best illustrated by Hull, Mass. A tiny town on a small peninsula that juts into Boston Harbor, Hull is home to the largest wind turbine on the East Coast. What makes the turbine even more unusual is its site: it stands less than 100 yards from Hull’s high school and the densely packed houses of the town. One of the biggest complaints about wind energy is that the turbines are noisy eyesores, and most people would rather not have one anywhere near their house. But Hull contradicts that view. The turbine is certainly imposing: it is 195 feet tall, and its rotor has a diameter of 180 feet. But it is almost entirely silent—far less noisy than the wavelets lapping the shore at its base—and between its sleek aerodynamic form and gracefully turning blades it feels more like a Claes Oldenburg sculpture than an industrial power plant.

The presence of an enormous turbine so close to a not-particularly-progressive town is a testament to the persuasive skills, enthusiasm and solid research of Jim Manwell. It is also, he will quickly tell you, the result of two happy coincidences. First, the town has a municipal power company. It is far easier, he says, to convince a municipal power company to adopt an alternative approach than to get a commercial utility to try something new. The other coincidence was the presence of Malcolm Brown ’56, who moved to Hull a few years ago and took up the cause of wind power in the town. Brown is a voluble and irrepressible man now thoroughly won over by wind power, and he has all the passion of a convert. Working with Jim Manwell, he rallied the townspeople, harangued the light company and served as an all-round agitator for the turbine. His great innovation, and the thing that is largely credited with winning over Hull’s residents, was to tell everyone that the town would no longer charge them for streetlights, traffic lights and floodlights. Those expenses were now to be covered by the turbine. Having a municipal power system meant that the public knew exactly what they were paying for, and naming specific expenses to be eliminated was much more effective than simply promising a percentage reduction. “Our light utility is little enough that it doesn’t think like a conventional industrial utility,” Brown says. “It’s not Pacific Gas and Electric or Enron.” Today, most of the town’s residents say they want a second turbine; Malcolm Brown is trying to convince them to set up a desalinization plant—run by wind power, of course—to produce Hull’s water; and other towns along the Massachusetts coast have sent representatives to Hull to find out how they might set up their own public wind power systems.

windmill baseball
The Hull turbine is unique in its proximity to a town. For all
its size, it’s quieter than the slap of a pitch in a catcher’s mitt. 

Although using wind for energy is among the oldest of human innovations, and despite the simple elegance of the Hull machine, modern wind turbines are a marvel of sophisticated technology. One day in February the breeze in Hull was not even strong enough to ruffle hair, yet the turbine was spinning at its top speed of 28 rpm and generating 660 kilowatts of power. If the wind gets too strong, the computer in the turbine’s base automatically feathers the blades so the edges face into the wind or stop altogether. All the mechanical parts of wind turbines have undergone extensive refinements over the past 15 years to produce the silent, efficient wonders we see today. And they are remarkably efficient. A well-designed turbine can capture more than 40 percent of the wind’s potential energy, and some of the bigger models can generate almost four megawatts of power (a small conventional power plant might generate 30 megawatts).

So why hasn’t the United States embraced wind power more enthusiastically? Part of the problem, Manwell says, is the American financial model. “In the U.S.,” he says, “we use the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) approach. Basically, it’s a mandate that whoever sells electricity will have to show that they are providing a certain percentage of their electricity from a renewable energy source. In this system the [energy supplier] gets a certificate for the proportion of energy it generates from renewable sources. These certificates will be for sale on the stock market, and people can bid for them. I call it a quasi-free-market approach. The idea is to try and marketize everything. And I think it’s an incredibly stupid idea. But there have been so many of these neoliberals out there trying to marketize everything.

“Now Germany, on the other hand, has something that’s called the fee and tariff approach. It isn’t a quota mandate but rather a price mandate. It basically says that you, the generator, will get x amount for your electricity. For a wind energy project put in today, it’s about nine cents a kilowatt hour. They’ve picked the number so it’s enough [to make the effort profitable]. So Farmer Bob or Developer Brown can go to the bank and say, ‘I want to put in a wind turbine.’ And the bank says ‘OK, how much are you going to get?’ And he says ‘Nine cents per hour,’ and you work out the number of hours and the cost and they give you the loan. No problem.

“But with the American RPS system you go to the bank and they ask what you’re going to make, and you say you get paid what’s called the avoided cost, which is tied to the cost of natural gas, so it fluctuates and might be three cents, or three-and-a-half or four. The bank says, ‘That doesn’t sound like enough.’ So you say, ‘Well, I’ve got the production tax credit, if the government approves it.’ And then you say, ‘I might get some certificates.’ And the bank says, ‘Ah! Certificates. What are they worth?’ And you say, ‘Well, I don’t know. They might be worth two or one or a half.’ And any bank is going to say, ‘Well, when you figure out what they’re worth and you can prove it, come back in and we’ll consider the loan.’

“From anybody’s point of view, liberal, neoliberal, conservative, fascist, that looks like a pretty stupid way to do it, because nobody knows,” Manwell says. “What the hell does Farmer Bob know about bidding and certificates? You need a team of lawyers just to figure it out. That doesn’t strike me as very conducive to making things happen.”

The traditional concerns about wind energy make for strange adversaries. One of the most contentious battles over wind energy today is being fought in Nantucket Sound, where the country’s first offshore wind farm is being planned. It would put 170 2.5-megawatt turbines several miles offshore to produce 420 megawatts of power—only slightly less than the nearby Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant. The project is being opposed by environmental groups, who are concerned about birds flying into the blades or disruption to the ocean ecosystem, and by landowners along the shore, who are worried about the effect of the project on their water views and property values. Among the concerned landowners are the Kennedys, who you might otherwise expect to be loudly supporting alternative energy plans.

Jim Manwell was one of the founders of the Nantucket project, which is called Cape Wind. He is no longer part of the project, and it has grown significantly from his original plan. In every way, it’s a different approach than the one he advocates. The current head of the project has a confrontational approach to opposition, and has planned an enormous wind farm. Manwell would have preferred starting with a smaller group of turbines that could have gently shown people that wind power is not the problem that they imagine, as the Hull turbine has done. And he would have used persuasion rather than confrontation to make the point.

That’s not to say that Manwell avoids controversy. In fact, he says, he needs it. “I get energized by feeling I’m on some sort of a cutting edge; and when there’s a good reason for a fight,” he says, “that’s exciting. I was on the wrestling team at Amherst. I don’t know if ‘aggressive’ is the right word, but you have to be sort of aggressive to be a wrestler, so I like a good fight. I get energized by the adrenaline of having adversaries. Of course, if you feel like you’re just totally losing, then that’s a bit of a bummer. But I don’t feel that we are totally losing, in spite of the fact that it looks like it from within the U.S. There are a lot of people who are concerned about environmental issues, even some republicans. General Electric wants to come to Massachusetts in a big way to manufacture wind turbines at the Quincy Shipyard and do this offshore stuff in a big way. I think this is incredible. My god, G.E! They used to build all these military weapons. I don’t have any problem dealing with these guys. I mean, they have their own thing and I have my own thing and I try not to lose my way in the midst of this, but I think it’s just great that they want to do this stuff. So, instead of just saying, ‘Oh, G.E., they’re just a bunch of jerks who were plenty involved in Vietnam and everything else,’ I say the fact that they’re willing to move in this direction is great.”

Despite his inadequate facilities, despite governmental inertia and public apathy, despite nearly 20 years of fighting an uphill battle, Jim Manwell still maintains that ’60s belief that the world can be better and that it’s his responsibility to make it that way. “The United States is dragging its feet, and that’s literally a drag because we use so much energy. But if we were to solve some of the problems instead of just getting in the way of them, that would be better. I go to Europe, and I get re-inspired. I see that you can do things, and I like that. I see that the world as a whole is marching forward.”

Photos: Frank Ward