Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, business development director at the Clemson University Restoration Institute, compared the grass-roots movement to turn wind into energy with the economic splash of the Boeing Co.'s decision to build its second Dreamliner factory in North Charleston.

Calling it "the next great opportunity" at a Charleston Women in International Trade luncheon Tuesday, Colbert-Busch said: "We have this opportunity to lose it, because right now this belongs to us."

She and colleagues at the Clemson institute, located on the former Navy base, should learn within the next two weeks whether they beat out other sites around the country for $45 million in federal stimulus funds to create a research complex to test giant wind turbines.

The U.S. Energy Department's Large Wind Turbine Drivetrain Testing Facility would try out blades that generate about 10 times the energy of the average offshore equipment at work today.

Colbert-Busch said wind energy is bigger than the automotive industry because, while average consumers might buy a car only every few years, they use electricity every day. The "ultimate prize," as she described it, "is getting wind turbines manufactured here in South Carolina."

The state's assets include strong wind over shallow water, access to port terminals and energy demand along the coast. While industry standards call for breezes that blow about 14 miles per hour, South Carolina's offshore speed reaches about 30 mph in the summer, according to Colbert-Busch.

She said the turbines can withstand a Category 3 hurricane. And if South Carolina grows renewable energy by 20 percent over the next 20 years, as the U.S. Energy Department recommends, it could see as many as 20,000 new direct jobs, she said.

Touching on the need to rally political leaders now, Colbert-Busch said the state can take a spot on the forefront of this technology.

"It would be a beautiful complement to Boeing," she said.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or abird@postandcourier.com.