The U.S. Energy Department said Monday that a site on the former Charleston Naval Base in North Charleston would become a test-bed for the world's largest offshore wind turbines, a move that lawmakers said may turn out to be a Boeing-size economic development prize.
A consortium led by Clemson University's Restoration Institute beat proposals and aggressive lobbying efforts by Pennsylvania, Michigan and several other states to land a $45 million federal grant to jump-start the project.
"Wind power holds tremendous potential to help create new jobs and reduce carbon pollution," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement announcing the grant. "We are at the beginning of a new Industrial Revolution when it comes to clean energy, and projects like these will help us get there faster."
Experts say the lab would put North Charleston on the map as a key player in the global wind power industry. It is planned to be located in a large vacant industrial building at the center of the former Navy base, not far from where conservators are restoring the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley. The facility will be operated as a nonprofit and provide cutting-edge testing to interested wind power manufacturers.
The $45 million federal grant is part of a $98 million proposal organized by Clemson and other state agencies. Clemson officials described the project as the largest single research effort in the university's history.
"This is a great example of how a research university like Clemson can be a catalyst for economic development," Clemson President James F. Barker said.
In the short term, the Restoration Institute estimates the project will create at least 113 construction jobs and 21 full-time jobs. But officials said the most significant impact of the facility will be as a powerful jobs magnet.
"This is of tremendous significance to our state," said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, one of several lawmakers who helped Clemson put the proposal together. Citing Energy Department figures, Grooms said, "anyone who develops an offshore wind turbine cluster could be the beneficiary of 20,000 jobs, and we are better suited than any other state."
South Carolina already has the makings of a cluster, he and others said. General Electric has a massive turbine manufacturing plant near Greenville, and several bearings companies and other suppliers have set up shop nearby.
Meanwhile, the old Navy base is an ideal place for manufacturers to assemble the turbines, Grooms said. The turbines of the future may become so large and heavy that companies will have to manufacture them at a waterfront site and load them by barge, he said.
State Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, also worked on the deal and noted that it involved the same group of lawmaker who put together the Boeing deal. "The Boeing announcement is the biggest we've made, but this is frosting on the cake," he said.
Citing Boeing's move, U.S. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., said the wind grant "is another game-changer for our state and for the Lowcountry."
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said the test facility moves Clemson "into the major leagues of alternative energy research."
The federal government launched the project earlier this year as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The facility is needed because turbine sizes have increased and outgrown the capacity of U.S. drivetrain testing facilities. Today, most offshore turbines generate about 1.5 megawatts, though GE has new 3.6-megawatt models with blades longer than a football field. Experts expect the next generation of turbines to generate 15 megawatts apiece, enough juice to power 7,500 homes.
The new testing lab will have equipment to test the durability and performance of these mega-turbines and their drive trains. A drive train takes energy generated by a turbine's blades and increases the rotational speed to drive the electrical generator, similar to the transmission in a car.
The only other facility capable of testing large wind turbines is in Hamburg, Germany, said Nick Rigas, director of the Restoration Institute's Renewable Energy focus area. "And that (German) facility won't have the capacity we're building into this one."
The lab is expected to be ready for testing in two years.
"The importance of this grant should not be understated," Rigas said. "Clemson, together with the industry that will grow around the testing facility, will drive wind energy research nationwide."
To make the project happen, lawmakers and Clemson officials put together a $98 million proposal, with private companies and South Carolina agencies providing a $53 million match. The Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority chipped in $6 million, the Commerce Department and the state added another $10 million. The State Ports Authority also pledged the use some of its facilities on the Navy base, and the S.C. Public Railways Commission agreed to build a rail spur to the lab.
Several private companies were part of the consortium, including CMMC, which will handle the turbines, and RENK AG, a company that makes test equipment. Two private individuals interested in renewable energy issues also made donations to the nonprofit. Tony Bakker, founder and former chief executive of Blackbaud, pledged $500,000, and James Meadors, owner of a green construction company, donated $25,000.
State Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, echoed Rigas' comments. "If we could get our foot in the door on wind turbines, we have the potential to bring jobs here like never before. ... We're making a quantum leap into renewables."
More than that, McConnell said he feels vindicated for all the years that he and others spent pushing the restoration of the Hunley and the creation of the Clemson Restoration Institute. He said the anti-corrosion research developed during the restoration of the Hunley was an important component in Clemson's application for the federal grant. "This is the ultimate home run," he said.
Gov. Mark Sanford's office issued a statement: "We look forward to the results of the study, and if it's shown to be a prudent decision both economically and environmentally, we think wind energy can be part of the energy puzzle going forward."
Many officials said Monday's announcement and Boeing's move couldn't come at a better time for South Carolina, which has a high unemployment rate and withstood a scandal-plagued summer over the governor's affair with an Argentine woman.
"We're seeing a great big light at the end of this unemployment tunnel," said Grooms, the Berkeley County senator.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said it was "another exciting piece of the economic puzzle to help our region recover" that also solidifies Clemson's "new home on the former naval base."
Energy Secretary Chu is scheduled to speak next week at Clemson's International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville. The ICAR center served as a model for the wind grant, Barker said, adding that with the Boeing announcement, "It seems to me that we are having a very positive effect on the self-concept of South Carolina."