State and local leaders are in a national race for $45 million in federal stimulus funds to create the world's first test bed for super-size wind turbines.
If the state lands the grant, the research complex would be built at Clemson University's Restoration Institute on the old Navy base and instantly make the state a key player in the emerging wind power industry.
But South Carolina isn't the only state competing for the U.S. Department of Energy's "Large Wind Turbine Drivetrain Testing Facility." Pennsylvania, Michigan and Massachusetts also have launched major efforts to land the complex.
"Elected leaders in other states are putting on a full-court press," Nick Rigas, director of Clemson's Restoration Institute, said Friday during the Charleston Green Fair at the Francis Marion Hotel.
Rigas said South Carolina's proposal was strong, noting that General Electric has the nation's largest wind turbine factory in Greenville and Charleston has port terminals to handle large offshore wind equipment. But he said he doesn't think South Carolina's elected leaders are pushing as hard as officials in other states.
The Energy Department wants to create a research complex to test a new generation of giant turbines that could revolutionize the offshore wind power industry. When spinning, these large turbines could generate as much as 15 megawatts of electricity apiece, enough juice to power 7,500 homes. Today, most offshore turbines generate about 1.5 megawatts, though GE has new 3.6-megawatt models with blades longer than a football field.
The Energy Department said the nation is falling behind other countries in wind power research, and that technological improvements are needed to make wind power more competitive with coal-fired power generators and other plants that generate greenhouse gases. The testing facility would focus on the turbine's drivetrain, which includes the gearbox, shaft and electronics.
Rigas said the complex would be the first of its kind in the world and would put South Carolina on the international wind power map. Manufacturers would likely set up in and around the area in the same way companies cluster around automotive research institutions.
South Carolina's proposal would use an existing building at the Clemson Restoration Institute. Other partners in the South Carolina proposal include the S.C. Energy Office, GE, Savannah River National Laboratory, Fluor Corp, Renk Labecco and SCANA. The grant itself would create 113 construction and 21 other jobs.
Competition for the grant is keen. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Penn State University teamed up with the Gear Research Institute for their proposal to build at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. A decision is expected next month.
Despite the suggestion that the state's effort to get the wind-testing facility is lackluster, state Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, said the state is doing everything possible to win the grant.
"It's the first step toward a much bigger one, which is to attract manufacturing facilities," said Campbell, who chairs the state's Wind Energy Study Committee. "That would be a real boon as far as jobs go."
Rigas said as more offshore wind projects get off the ground along the East Coast, several cities are likely to become wind power manufacturing hubs. He said Charleston is an ideal location because the turbines are too large to ship by road or rail.
Rigas added that the state could energize its wind power industry by setting strict goals for generating power from renewable energy sources, known in energy circles as "renewable energy portfolios." Other states, including North Carolina, have created these portfolios and have seen their green energy industries take off.
Erika Myers of the state Energy Office said that if the state does land the grant, "it would be a huge symbol that we're engaged and interested in offshore wind power."