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Global Carolina Profile: Clemson University’s Wind Turbine Testing Facility

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NORTH CHARLESTON, SC – Lawmakers and business leaders joined officials from the Clemson University Restoration Institute at the old Charleston Naval Base in North Charleston this past Thursday to break ground on the university’s new wind turbine testing facility. And while the Carolinas are only just emerging as a regional hub for wind energy, benefits of locating the center in North Charleston are already being felt in the form of significant local, national and international investment.

In 2009 Clemson received US$45 million to fund the project from the Department of Energy under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That initial sum was soon supplemented by $53 million from the state and private sector. Meanwhile, as quickly as Clemson raised the capital to build the new facility, suppliers such as Charlotte-based Siemens Energy and Germany-based IMO Group stepped up to fill the emerging product and service needs of the expanding market.

Initial Headwinds
The state has faced stiff headwinds in its efforts to establish itself as a hub for wind energy development and commercialization. As Clemson Restoration Institute director of business development Elizabeth Colbert-Busch explained at a recent meeting of the Midlands International Trade Association (MITA) in Columbia, a number of interests from other parts of the country where wind energy has already caught on were interested in landing the federal dollars to fund such a facility. “We had enormous competition from traditional wind-energy powerhouses such as Maine, Ohio, California and Arizona,” Colbert-Busch said.

Still, by building a strong public/private partnership that included not just Clemson but the South Carolina Department of Commerce, the South Carolina State Ports Authority and individual investors – and by moving quickly – South Carolina and Clemson University were able to beat the competition and make the facility a reality. “When the grant money was made available, we applied – at the strong urging of GE,” Colbert-Busch explained. “None of these other states or other universities knew we had a grant application in. So we applied, came in under the radar, and, much to the surprise of the competition, we won.”

Economic Tailwinds
Once the federal funding was secured, the pieces began to fall into place. In fact, it quickly became evident that the Carolinas’ burgeoning renewable energy cluster was already a powerful industry force. “We have GE in the Upstate [SC] as the largest producer in the United States – and 50% of the globe – for wind turbines,” Colbert-Busch pointed out. “We also have PPG Industries, Bosch-Rexroth and, now, IMO. We have all these companies and more here, and they are already supplying the existing wind turbine manufacturing industry.”

The Clemson wind turbine testing facility, which will be modeled after the highly successful CU-ICAR (Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research) campus, is ideally positioned to capitalize on the new opportunities. Housed in an 82,000 square foot warehouse formerly used by the U.S. Navy and set on a 100-acre site, it will be capable of full-scale, highly accelerated testing of advanced drive train systems for wind turbines in the 5 megawatt to 15 megawatt range, with a 30 percent overload capacity. The project also benefits from the site location, as the refitted warehouse sits adjacent to existing rail and ship-handling infrastructure. “This facility is on a scale larger than most, if not all, of the other facilities in the United States,” Colbert-Busch said. “It could easily become the primary wind turbine manufacturing center for the entire Eastern Seaboard.”

The Benchmark: Denmark
Of course, the emergence of the Carolinas as major player in the renewable energy sector means tremendous opportunities both for large global corporations and small regional suppliers. It could also mean thousands of new jobs in the coming years, which is critical considering the current economic climate in the region. In the short term, the Clemson University Restoration Institute estimates the initiative will create more than 100 temporary jobs associated with construction of the facility, 21 full-time jobs and more than 500 indirect jobs. In the long term, those numbers could multiply exponentially, creating an almost unprecedented boom across the region.

For comparison, Colbert-Busch cited the size and success of the Scandinavian nation of Denmark, which is geographically about the same size as South Carolina and home to a similarly sized population but which has nonetheless established itself as the world leader in wind turbine manufacturing. “They have estimated that the wind turbine manufacturing industry has created between 35,000 and 40,000 direct jobs [in Denmark],” Colbert-Busch said. “Granted, they are a global supplier of wind turbines. But we are in a great position here in the Carolinas: we can ship; we can transport; we can get anywhere from here.”

The Future is Here
In 2009 the U.S. market was the fastest growing wind energy market in the world. That means researchers at the North Charleston test facility face challenges such as those faced in any other growth industry, as well as challenges specific to the alternative energy sector. None of this is lost on Clemson, however, which has developed a graduate education program to meet the myriad challenges associated with the widespread commercialization, dissemination and reliability of wind energy head-on.

Officials at Clemson are also aware that the success of wind power will not derive from an insular academic approach, and so have populated the wind turbine testing facility’s advisory board with representatives from 90% of the OEMs in the wind energy sector. With representatives from GE, Siemens, Timken and ZF Group already on board, the possibilities for profitable private sector partnerships are limited only by the region’s already proven appetite for affordable clean energy. “This is not for the Carolinas to win,” Colbert-Busch concluded, “it is for us to lose. This belongs to us. The opportunity is here. We just have to seize it. But we are increasingly convinced, this is not only going to happen; it is happening now.”

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