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Wind Power Pioneer Interview: Bill Heronemus, University of Massachusetts

Bill Heronemus

Bill Heronemus, University of Massachusetts (Amherst)

Wind Power Pioneer Interview: Bill Heronemus, University of Massachusetts

Date: 5/1/2003

Location: Amherst, MA

"As a professor of civil engineering at the University of Massachusetts (Umass) in the 1970s, Bill started the alternative energy program at Umass (now the Renewable Energy Research Laboratory) and led a team of researchers on wind engineering projects. The team developed the Umass "Wind Furnace" and a turbine design that formed the basis of the initial U.S. Windpower turbine design. Although Bill was a pioneer of the wind farm concept, his main area of interest was offshore wind power. Many of Bill's offshore wind power studies from the '70s, which were considered to be ahead of their time, are now under consideration in Europe. Bill passed away on November 2, 2002, but his former students and their continuing contribution to wind power are part of his legacy." — Jon McGowan, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Jon McGowan of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, remembers Bill Heronemus.

Please give us a brief history of Bill's background.

A. Bill received his B.S. from the U.S. Naval Academy and his M.S. in marine engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1941-1965, retiring as a captain. After being employed by United Aircraft Corporate Systems Center from 1965-1967, he was professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts from 1967-1985.

Tell us about his key contributions to the wind industry.

A. As a member of and major contributor to the NSF/NASA Solar Energy Panel in the early 1970s, Bill made sure that a fair share of the early U.S. government renewables work went to wind energy. He had hundreds of renewable energy ideas and projects for interested students and faculty. Bill's best projects include:

  • Starting the renewable energy program at UMass
  • Offshore wind—especially floating wind turbines
  • Wind heating systems (the wind furnace)
  • The wind furnace turbine, which incorporated variable speed, variable pitch, computer control, and near-optimal blade design (three blades!)
  • Multiple-rotor wind systems.

Q. Can you give our readers some insight into Bill's personality?

A. He was the captain. He acted like the captain, and we all regarded him as the captain. In the early days of renewable energy (1970s), he testified at numerous congressional hearings and other public hearings. He always made the best case for renewable energy and was totally opposed to the proliferation of nuclear energy—based on solid engineering calculations. We always thought that our utilities would like to award him the "Heronemus Electric Chair of Engineering."

Q. Can you remember any words of wisdom from Bill?


  1. Chemical engineers should be required to perform an environmental impact statement for their careers (he remembered Love Canal!).
  2. Dixie Lee Ray is an idiot.
  3. Retired utility executives should be required to live inside a shut-down nuclear reactor.

Q. What was Bill's vision for the future of wind?

A. He knew that wind power could provide major input to the United States' (and the world's) electricity needs. He thought that the utilities and the U.S. government were dragging their feet on all forms of renewable energy, and he never hesitated to say this in public.

The scope of his vision was grand. His talks frequently included references to the wind resources of the world, especially the oceans. He imagined wind-produced hydrogen from Patagonia being transported to the United States and Europe. His vision for hydrogen went far beyond simple production of the gas to methods of making it into a more easily handled fuel.

Q. How did he inspire you and your colleagues?

A. He was an engineer's engineer. He didn't need computers for his calculations. When we used computers to verify them, he was usually right on. He had a one-track mind on the subject of wind energy, and the track always included more wind machines. His visionary concepts were described in detailed drawings. We recall one of his drawings for offshore wind plants in the Great Lakes. The drawings included cable specifications and bumpers for structure protection from floating ice.

Q. What is Bill's legacy?

A. The contributions of the numerous students who worked under his supervision, the faculty members who worked with him, and the founding of the University of Massachusetts Renewable Energy Laboratory.

This information was last updated on 8/2/2011

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