The wind power industry is producing jobs in the Charleston area, and development officials see it as an important sector for attracting manufacturing and high-tech companies.

That’s true even though South Carolina and most Southern states have no wind farms, and offshore wind power is years from becoming a reality.

“Make no mistake, we intend to make our state, and the three-county region in particular, the global destination for wind energy manufacturing,” said Merle Johnson, manager of global business development for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.

“Right before your eyes, the region is becoming a serious player on the global stage,” he said.

The driver for wind-energy jobs in greater Charleston is Clemson University’s Wind Turbine Drivetrain Testing Facility, now under construction on the former Navy base in North Charleston.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the $98 million facility will be the largest of its kind in the world, capable of testing enormous 7.5 and 15 megawatt turbines under stressful conditions.

Clemson also plans to add the capability to test how wind turbines and other power sources interact with electric grids, which could lead to additional uses for the facility.

Currently, the largest drivetrain test facility is in Spain, for turbines up to 5 megawatts.

International manufacturers are expected to use the North Charleston facility, aided by the ability to ship the huge machines to the Port of Charleston’s Veteran’s Terminal.

Reducing energy costs

Nick Rigas, senior scientist and director of the drivetrain testing facility, said the goal is to help manufacturers create better designs, lowering the cost of wind turbines and ultimately lowering energy costs. The testing facility can mimic the massive forces applied to turbine drive systems by the huge spinning blades they power, he said, resulting in data about their strengths and weaknesses.

The Department of Energy requires that the facility be available to all manufacturers for two years once it opens, but after that, Clemson could reach deals with particular manufactures such as General Electric, which manufactures turbines in Greenville.

“Companies are already talking to us about that competitive advantage,” Rigas said. “There are lots of opportunities.”

By testing turbines and simulating power grid responses under one roof in North Charleston, companies could do in months what they now do with years of field testing, he said.

The immediate impact of the Clemson project has been about 600 construction jobs. The testing facility requires unusual foundation work, to handle the stress of the turbines and testing equipment, involving about 500 pilings and the equivalent of roughly 1,000 truckloads of concrete, according to Rigas.

The testing rigs are so large with one gearbox weighing 400 tons, that they will be shipped in pieces.

Catching the wind

Wind energy plays a small but fast-growing role in the nation’s demand for power, particularly in top wind-energy states such as Texas, Iowa and California. As the industry grows, the Lowcountry hopes to win some of the jobs related to that growth.

“The U.S. is the second largest country for wind power (behind China),” American Wind Energy Association Director of Business Development Jeff Anthony said Wednesday at a wind energy forum in North Charleston City Hall. “We’re growing at an average of 35 percent over the past five years.”

South Carolina now has 15 manufacturing companies associated with the industry, accounting for between 1,000 and 2,000 jobs, according to the association. That’s out of 470 manufacturers nationwide that produce some of the more than 8,000 components used in each wind turbine.

Anthony said the largest near-term question for the industry is whether Congress will renew the Production Tax Credit, a financial incentive for the wind energy that, unlike incentives for coal and oil producers, will expire without action this year.

“The eventual goal is to get rid of the need for the PTC, for the market to grow,” said Rigas.

Anthony said there’s broad public support for making wind energy a growing part of the nation’s power supply, but “not so much” in Congress.

Federal incentives and regulations are a key to unlocking industry growth, he said. With offshore wind power, for example, complex federal rules apply to any project more than three miles offshore.

Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s state-owned utility, has been studying the potential for offshore wind power, but supporters of wind power say no blades will be spinning for at least several years.

Despite the lack of wind power generation in the South, however, the area is increasingly on the industry’s radar.

In June, an estimated 13,000 people will attended the American Wind Energy Association’s annual conference in Atlanta.

“The reality is, manufacturing is here, now, in the Southeast,” Anthony said.

The goal now, for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance and others, is to attract the growing industry to the area. And they hope the Clemson testing facility will be the magnet that pulls them here.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.