The Clemson University Restoration Institute will break ground October 28 on a $98 million wind turbine drive train facility at its North Charleston, S.C. campus in the United States.
Development of the facility is being funded through a $45 million grant from the US Department of Energy and an additional $53 million in private donations.
It is seen as both a milestone in the economic development in a state hard hit by the recession, and as a cornerstone of efforts to place the Southeast US at the forefront of the “renewable energy economy,” said Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, its director of business development.
Within days of announcing plans for testing facility last November, IMO Group, a German company that makes wind turbine parts, announced it was opening a plant in North Charleston that would create 190 jobs.
But Colbert-Busch boldly predicted many thousand more may be just around the corner as the Institutes 100-plus acre campus on the site of the former Charleston Navy Base becomes, in her words, “One of the most important sites for wind energy research and development in the country.” In a very real sense, the university’s own embrace of the promise of wind energy was something of a shift direction for Clemson.
From 19th century relic to 21st century technology
When it was initially given the property by the City of North Charleston and the Charleston Naval Complex Authority Redevelopment Authority, the primary focus of the campus was metals conservation work being done on the C.S.S. Hunley, a Confederate submarine in the American Civil War that sank after blowing up a Union warship off the South Carolina Coast.
But from the start, Colbert-Busch said, “this institute was clearly seen as an economic engine.” “So the intellectual brain power at Clemson said, “Okay, we know where the economy is going, and know that the number one concern in the world is energy, and the second, is water,” she said. “How do we make a meaningful contribution, while also advancing our mission as a land grant university responsible for outreach, research and economic development?”
The search for an answer to that question was spearheaded by John Kelly, the institute’s executive director, and Dr. Nicholas Rigas, director of the university’s renewable energy. As it happened, wind power had long been a focus of Rigas’s; a spate of grant applications led to the award for the test facility.
Speaking with an almost evangelical passion, Colbert-Busch spoke of how the history of the world is the history of prosperity following energy and water.
“Offshore wind farms are going to be important to all of our energy futures, but the ultimate prize is getting into the manufacturing end of the industry, to sustain our local workforce and the local economy,” she said.
“We fully expect the drive train test facility to be the focal point of a renewable energy cluster here,” she added.
In terms of the anticipated long term impact, the institute likes to benchmark itself against Denmark, a nation that’s roughly the size of South Carolina, at about the same latitude, and has a large wind energy sector in its economy.
“They say they’ve created 30,000 to 40,000 direct jobs through the growth of that energy, and while I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest we’d create that many jobs, I certainly don’t think 20,000 wind power jobs is out of the question in the long run,” Colbert-Busch said.
Putting South Carolina on the wind sector’s radar
The testing facility will be housed in a former Navy warehouse adjacent to existing rail and ship-handling infrastructure, and will be capable of full-scale testing of the largest wind turbine drive train systems currently in development.
Already the institute has tapped about 90% of the world’s top wind turbine manufacturers to serve on its industrial advisory board, Colbert-Busch said.
“They all came to Charleston, saw what we are planning, and the reaction, quite honestly, was ‘Whoa… South Carolina has never been on our radar screen, but it certainly is now,’” she said.
“We believe that if a manufacturer wants to test the next generation of turbine designs, they’ll literally have nowhere else to go because of the sheer size of the equipment,” she said. “And if you were a manufacturer, wouldn’t you want to be located close to the quality control center? “IMO Group’s commitment to the region is just the start; there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the beginning of the cluster,” she said.
Immediately adjacent to the turbine testing facility are 111 acres primed for redevelopment by the industry. The site is currently served by a private port terminal operator, but will soon also have the new state port terminal and a rail spur to convey components to and from the area. And Colbert-Busch said Clemson’s research plans don’t begin and end with the turbine facility. The rendering that hangs in her offices also denotes the potential location for a wind turbine blade testing facility.
“It’s a way to combine this research without advanced materials work,” she said. “And wouldn’t want to test all of your components in one place before shipping them directly to a wind farm in the North Sea or along the US East Coast?”