In a very real sense, Clemson's embrace of wind energy has been something of a shift in direction from the distant past to the near the future.
When the City of North Charleston and the Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment gave a piece of the old Navy Yard site to Clemson University, the primary focus of the campus was to be on metals conservation work being done on the C.S.S. Hunley, a Confederate submarine that sank after blowing up a Union warship off Charleston's coast. Instead, the Clemson University Restoration Institute broke ground Thursday on a $98 million wind turbine drive train facility.
"This institute was clearly seen as an economic engine," says Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, the institute's director of business development. "So the intellectual brainpower at Clemson said, 'OK, we know where the economy is going, and we know that the number one concern in the world is energy and the second is water. How do we make a meaningful contribution while also advancing our mission as a land-grant university responsible for outreach, research, and economic development?'"
Development of the facility is being funded through a $45 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and an additional $53 million in private donations. Within days of announcing plans for a 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 thousand more jobs may be just around the corner as the Institute's 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."
Speaking with an almost evangelical passion, Colbert-Busch talked 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."
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 are out of the question in the long run," Colbert-Busch said.
The testing facility will be housed in a former Navy warehouse adjacent to existing rail and nearby port transportation, and it could test the largest wind turbine drive train systems currently in development.
Already the institute has tapped about 90 percent 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.
"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 added
Immediately adjacent to the turbine testing facility, 111 acres are primed for redevelopment by the industry. And Colbert-Busch said Clemson's research plans don't begin and end with the turbine facility. The rendering of the site 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 who 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 U.S. East Coast?"
Enough wind is blowing off of the South Carolina coast to provide electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes, according to panelists at a recent wind-energy symposium — the only catch is that the wind is only available "some of the time."
The forum came on the heels of a Palmetto Wind Research study of wind at six buoys off the coast near Georgetown and Myrtle Beach. The buoys have measured wind speed, direction, and frequency at stations up to six miles out into the ocean. Santee Cooper is using the data to assess the feasibility of building 40 wind turbines off the South Carolina coast.
According to Elizabeth Kress, the utility's renewable energy director, the findings suggest a wind turbine farm at those locations could generate one to five gigawatts of electricity, enough to justify continued exploration of a wind-powered future.
The next step will be to build a demonstration wind turbine to confirm the initial findings, says Paul Gayes, Center for Marine and Wetlands Study director at Coastal Carolina University. And time is of the essence, he says, especially if South Carolina wants to reap the ancillary benefits of renewable energy production.
"The states that are 'first in' would get the economic benefits," Gayes says of the manufacturing base for wind power and skilled workers that would come with the industry. States that get in renewable energy early would have a better chance of attracting companies that manufacture, assemble, install, or service wind turbines, blades, cables, and wind-turbine foundations, he said.
Nicholas Rigas, director and chief scientist of the new wind-turbine test lab at the Clemson University Restoration Institute, agreed, pointing out that several coastal states are offering initiatives to promote the industry along their water-facing borders.
To date, 10 states along the eastern seaboard have passed laws requiring utilities to generate a certain amount of their electricity from renewable sources within the next five to 20 years, according to the S.C. Seagrant Consortium. At the same time, 14 more states around the country, plus the District of Columbia, have established quotas (called "renewable portfolio standards") that are spurring utilities to develop indigenous sources of clean power such as wind and sun, according to the Consortium.
South Carolina has not passed a renewable portfolio standard. But Santee Cooper has adopted a goal of producing 40 percent of its electricity in the next 10 years from non-carbon fuel sources.
But winds can be fickle and location is everything. As a result, wind and other renewable energy is more likely to augment existing fuel sources than replace them.
"I've heard it said that wind and solar are from heaven and coal and oil are from, well... somewhere else," says State Sen. Paul P. Leventis (D-Sumter). "Now we all realize that there will be a mix, that our future isn't going to be entirely predicated on a new form of energy, but isn't it better to get as much from heaven as we can?" —Dan McCue