It came as quite a surprise, actually, something of an aftershock following the big Boeing aircraft assembly plant announcement.

But the reality of the new wind turbine testing facility to be built on the former Charleston Naval Base could turn out to be a bigger economic boon to the Lowcountry than many imagined.

Last week, a group known as "Green Drinks" gathered at a downtown burrito joint to hear Nick Rigas of the Clemson University Restoration Institute (www.clemson.edu/restoration) talk about the $98 million project designed to put torque and strain on drive trains to be installed in monstrous wind turbines to be deployed worldwide.

It's not only the largest government-funded grant for wind energy, it's the largest grant the state of South Carolina has ever received.

In short, we went from a state known for a bunch of political windbags to a state that soon could be a world leader in wind technology.

'Stealth bomber'

"We came in like a stealth bomber," Rigas explained. "Some very big wind-energy states were bidding on this. Nobody even knew we were going to make a proposal."

South Carolina won, Rigas said, because of the technical team it put together, our local port and rail access, and the group's marketing plan.

So what we're going to see within three years is a mega-facility where monster parts from international companies will be tested to see if they can withstand the elements when giant wind turbines are built offshore.

Does this mean wind turbines will appear suddenly off our coast? The issues are separate, according to Rigas. One is manufacturing, the other is policy.

But Rigas said almost every important manufacturing firm in the world already has visited Charleston, a place that wasn't even on the industry's radar until recently.

Job growth

So what does this mean for locals?

Jobs. It will create more than 200 construction jobs immediately, but more importantly, the Department of Energy estimates this technology could add more than 10,000 jobs in the Palmetto State over the next 20 years.

"The opportunities really exists in the niches that people haven't really thought about," explained Rigas, who said these modern turbines have 250,000 parts. "Perhaps you have a special coating that's great for a bridge structure, but it may also apply here. Or you have a special sensor that could also connect to this kind of work."

The possibilities are endless. Granted, much of this specialized technology will come from outside the Lowcountry. But Rigas says the answer to taking advantage of this high-tech growth opportunity is literally blowing in the wind.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598.