In Memoriam |
Mel Manalis: 1939-2023

Mel Manalis, who pioneered the study of wind in California and preached the gospel of renewable energy to more than 6,000 students at UCSB, died last month of congestive heart failure at the age of 83.

Mel was a lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program — one of the top majors at UCSB and one of the first of its kind in the world — for 42 years, until he retired in 2017. Well ahead of his time, he was promoting wind, geothermal, ocean wave, and solar power through the 1980s, ’90s, and 2000s, even as three Republican presidents cut off subsidies for renewables and fostered a fracking boom in oil and natural gas.

As a physicist, Mel was focused on big-picture problems such as entropy — the way energy disperses and becomes less useful over time. An example of this would be a piece of burning firewood that turns into smoke, ash, and gas. The greater the entropy, the greater the losses to the environment, usually in the form of heat. So fixated on entropy was Mel that his family learned never to “set him off” by uttering the word!

At the same time, Mel talked to his students about practical solutions to global warming, predicting decades ago that solar arrays would someday be widespread and electrical heat pumps would replace gas-powered furnaces. He invited in guest speakers — leaders of the nascent industry, who, dressed in natty sports coats and armed with slides of wind farms and geothermal installations, gave students the confidence that they, too, could make a career in renewables.

“Mel was an interesting blend of a super big thinker who understood the cosmos and the Earth as a system, but also was super practical and understood things like heat pumps and how they worked,” said Howard Wenger, a UCSB trustee and solar power technology provider who wrote his thesis on wind power on Anacapa Island in 1982, with Mel as his advisor. “He really focused on the here and now and what was possible today and what he thought would be possible in the future. Anytime he taught a class, I took it.”

California is now planning to ban the sale of gas-fired furnaces and water heaters by 2030, and dozens of American cities and counties are adopting similar policies. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nearly half of the new power added to the grid in 2022 was solar, most of it in Texas and California. By 2025, the agency says, wind and solar power will overtake coal as the largest source of global electricity.

Mel saw it coming before most people did. He was prescient about China’s outsized role, too. In the early 1980s, he took three trips to China to advise the government on large-scale wind projects. The second trip, with a delegation of wind experts, was sponsored by Jim Dehlsen, formerly of Montecito, a wind energy pioneer who went on to erect China’s first wind turbines in the mid-’90s.

As a reporter, I met Mel when he was setting up his anemometers, or devices to measure wind speed and velocity, around the state. He had been to Anacapa Island, Alcatraz Island, Point Conception, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Reagan’s ranch on Refugio Road, the Antioch Bridge over the San Joaquin River, and Santa Rosa Island — one of the windiest spots in the West, he told me. To get to the islands, Mel would hire pilots with planes that could take off and land on very short runways.

But more than a researcher, Mel was a teacher beloved by two generations of students.

Tall, dark, and handsome and wearing a big hat, he cut an imposing figure on campus but was never pompous or arrogant — only kind, humble, and enthusiastic, his students and colleagues said. There was always a long line of students waiting to see Mel during his office hours.

Mel created the class “Energy and the Environment,” a requirement of the major, and a class in industrial ecology, in which he explored the environmental costs of manufacturing and shipping, starting with the extraction of raw materials and continuing to the distribution of the end product to the consumer.

“He didn’t water his classes down; he was committed to helping his students understand basic principles of physics as they apply to energy — and they loved him for it,” said Carla D’Antonio, chair of Environmental Studies. “It’s hard to imagine anyone having taught more of our students than Mel.”

In December, after Mel moved from his home into assisted living, more than 40 colleagues and alumni wrote to him on a Google Form set up by UCSB. One former student said that Mel had been “the most influential mentor in my professional life.” Another wrote, “I can close my eyes and picture your animated face and happy smile. I can even hear your voice.” Still another said, “I vividly recall your lectures on heat pumps!”

Mel never saw the string of grateful comments. He would have been pleased to know that his former students had become engineers, land-use planners, solar power developers, government employees, landscape architects, and science teachers.

I wish I could tell Mel that in the January storms, my furnace flooded and went kaput, so I’m installing a heat pump!

From Marilyn, Mel’s wife, I used to hear about the family’s summer trips to a piece of oak-studded land they owned in the scenic Cascade Range, overlooking Shasta Lake. For years, before they built a house there, Mel and Marilyn would sleep on a waterbed outdoors under the stars. It was a slice of paradise.

“He’d always find a way to make something happen,” Jeremy Manalis said of his father. “He had a vision of how things could be.”

Mel died at Heritage House in Santa Barbara on January 1. He is survived by Marilyn, of Santa Barbara; three sons, Andrew Manalis of Santa Barbara, Scott of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Jeremy of Portland, Oregon; and a brother, Richard, of Surprise, Arizona.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Mel’s memory can be made to the Environmental Studies Program at UCSB (


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