GREENVILLE -- General Electric Co., the world's largest wind-turbine manufacturer, "is quite interested" in Clemson University's future offshore wind-turbine lab in North Charleston, Jeffrey Immelt, the company's president and chief executive officer, said Tuesday.
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But Immelt stopped short of saying whether the company plans to build a plant nearby.
"We just need to see how (the turbine test facility) evolves," Immelt told reporters before speaking to state business leaders during an energy symposium at Clemson's International Center for Automotive Research.
Last month, the Department of Energy selected Clemson's Restoration Institute in North Charleston as the site of a new $98 million test lab for large offshore wind turbines.
Since the announcement, speculation has grown that GE might team up with Clemson, as BMW did in Greenville at Clemson's ICAR. Immelt's visit Tuesday added fuel to that possibility.
Before speaking to reporters, Immelt met at length with Clemson President James Barker and other officials working on the new wind lab at the former Navy base.
Afterward, Barker told The Post and Courier they discussed the potential of offshore wind power. He said that GE seems genuinely interested in a partnership with Clemson in North Charleston, but how that partnership develops and whether it includes a manufacturing component "has yet to be defined."
During the symposium's keynote speech, Immelt said GE is moving forward aggressively with green technology, which he said could generate "a technological renaissance that could reshape the country."
He said the country needs to move forward quickly, though, because China, India and Europe already have moved into renewable energy, nuclear power and other non-carbon-emitting industries. Millions of jobs are at stake. "If we don't get off our butts and get more aggressive" in these fields, he said those jobs will go overseas.
Immelt also had strong words about people who shrug off global warming as a left-wing conspiracy.
"This should not be a source of national controversy," he said, adding that he thinks that global warming is real and that man plays a role. But he said "no matter what your position on global warming," the debate over clean energy can be framed more simply by focusing on its potential to reduce pollution, generate jobs and increase the nation's energy security.
Immelt said his company has moved aggressively into the alternative energy field. In 2002, when the company entered the wind-power business, it was the seventh-largest in the world. Today, he said, GE is the world's largest wind-turbine maker. Some of that work is done in Greenville, where GE has a plant that employs more than 3,100 people and buys about $1 billion in supplies.
Immelt said Europe is expected to build 30 gigawatts of wind power in the next decade. (In South Carolina, one gigawatt typically can power 500,000 homes.) He said that GE hopes to grab a third of the European business, and that "we're going to do some of that in Europe, but we're going to do some here. ... There will be thousands of jobs in the offshore wind-supply chain in the U.S. that will export to Europe. That's how jobs get created."
Asked specifically about a future plant in North Charleston, Immelt said GE plans to work closely with Clemson and South Carolina "as it develops the site. We are long in wind energy, and you never know where that will go. We have no specific plans, but we are quite excited about what the potential can be."
Clemson's proposal for a wind-turbine test lab bested others from Michigan, Pennsylvania and several other states. During a visit to ICAR last week, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Clemson's proposal came out on top because of a strong management plan, North Charleston's port facilities and a generous state and local match.
The Department of Energy is putting up $45 million in federal stimulus money, with state agencies, private individuals and companies providing the remaining $53 million. The facility will be used to test giant offshore wind turbines that energy experts say are needed to bring down the costs of wind power. These turbines have yet to be made but could generate 15 megawatts of electricity apiece when running full tilt, enough to power 7,500 homes.
State leaders and economic development officials hope the test lab will help attract manufacturing plants to form a wind-power industrial cluster. They said East Coast cities, such as Charleston and North Charleston, are well positioned because these turbines are so massive that factories likely will have to be located near port facilities.
Immelt, who has a second home on Kiawah Island, said the company's plant in Greenville, which has a strong emphasis on exports, "can be a model for what can be created across the state and the country."
Read more about Clemson's wind turbine test lab
North Charleston gets turbine facility, published 11/24/09