Clemson University breaks ground on wind facility

Charleston Regional Business Journal
Andy Owens
October 28, 2010

A few feet from where enormous wind turbine drivetrains will be stress-tested for deployment around the world, a group of state, local and Clemson University officials turned shovels of orange dirt today in North Charleston.

The groundbreaking for the Clemson Restoration Institute’s wind turbine drivetrain test facility marks the next step in a journey that began nearly a year ago with the awarding of a $45 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy through the federal stimulus act, which is being combined with $53 million in matching public and private funds.

The grant, the largest in the history of Clemson University, is expected to spark a new industry in South Carolina and make the region a hub for the research and development of clean energy production.

“Today, we are not just breaking ground on a new Clemson University research facility,” said Clemson President James Barker. “We are breaking ground on a new economic era for our state.”

Right now, the facility is a large, dark warehouse across from the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, along North Charleston’s waterfront on land formerly occupied by the Navy base.

7.5MW test rig The facility will begin by testing 7.5-megawatt drivetrains that weigh 150 tons and are 49 feet long. Testing on larger, 15-MW drivetrains will begin soon after. Those weigh 400 tons and are 66 feet long.

“We’re developing a whole new industry for the state of South Carolina,” said John Kelly, executive director of the Restoration Institute and Clemson’s vice president for economic development.

15MW test rig With a tiger paw being projected across one of the warehouse walls and a seating area bathed in orange light, Tiger Rag played as hundreds filed in to hear speakers before the ceremonial turning of dirt.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said that when the city was approached about giving 87 acres of Navy base land to the Restoration Institute for the drivetrain testing facility, a state senator convinced him it was in line with his vision for the future of North Charleston. He said North Charleston City Council voted unanimously for the project.

“We had a vision of not what we could do immediately, but what we could do for the future,” Summey said today.

There was an undercurrent of political tension, however, with speakers alluding to resistance by some state lawmakers, including Gov. Mark Sanford, to spending matching funds to qualify for the grant.

In January, Sanford was the only member of the state Budget and Control Board to oppose funding for the wind turbine research facility, which included $7 million from a decimated general fund. Sanford argued that the costs of such research should be borne by private enterprise, not the government.

Clemson has commitments from General Electric and Siemens that they will use the facility.

Sanford was invited to today’s event but declined to attend, according to a Clemson Restoration Institute representative. Sanford’s office said that his cabinet was represented, including Deputy Commerce Secretary Jack Ellenberg and three project managers.

Sanford and Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor were in Walterboro this morning to launch a pilot program through the Department of Juvenile Justice and the State Law Enforcement Division to benefit at-risk youth.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham told state lawmakers in attendance: “You had a heck of a fight to fund your portion of this project. History will say you made a wise investment.”

Graham said the wind turbine testing facility is a right move for the economic well-being of South Carolina and is a step toward achieving energy independence from countries that sell oil to the United States but don’t like America.

“I want an energy policy that breaks our dependence on foreign oil,” Graham said. “I’m tired of talking about it.”

Summey lauded the officials who voted in favor for money for the wind turbine facility.

“You stood tall; you stood proud,” Summey said. “When you look back in the history of South Carolina, this will be one of those days when we know it was a job well done.”

Mike Derby, a U.S. Department of Energy project manager, said, “It represents a significant step forward in the ability to test wind turbines. It’s an enormous opportunity, and we really appreciate all the support.”

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