Clemson’s wind-turbine facility will test mechanical and electrical equipment

Clemson University will dedicate its wind turbine drivetrain testing facility in North Charleston on Thursday. Massive drivetrains for offshore wind turbines will be connected to equipment in the new facility and tested for wear and tear. Buy this photo

When Clemson University’s $98 million wind turbine drivetrain testing facility is dedicated this week, it will have the capability to test the massive turbines electrically as well as mechanically.

If you go

What: The dedication of Clemson University’s wind turbine testing facility

When: 3 p.m. Thursday

Where: Clemson’s Energy Innovation Center, former Navy base, North Charleston

And the electrical testing system, known as a grid-simulator, is the brainchild of Curtiss Fox, an electrical engineer who works for Clemson’s Restoration Institute on the former Navy base in North Charleston.

Fox, 32, is a 2000 Summerville High School graduate who went on to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at Clemson.

The 82,000-square-foot drivetrain testing facility, which has been named the Energy Innovation Center, is housed in a renovated warehouse on the former base.

The idea behind the testing facility is that manufacturers of offshore wind turbines from around the world will pay Clemson’s Restoration Institute to test their gear indoors in North Charleston before going to the great expense of putting the units in offshore wind farms.

Clemson officials have said the facility will be able to simulate the wear and tear of five years’ worth of storms in a month.

Fox, who in 2010 was working as an intern at the Restoration Institute studying how the electrical grid responds to power disruptions, said he thought the work of the facility could be expanded to include electrical testing as well.

Nick Rigas, the Restoration Institute’s associate director, said the U.S. Department of Energy was so supportive of the idea that it provided a $10.1 million grant to launch the grid simulator. It’s different than other simulators because its grid responds like the actual grid, and because manufacturers will bring their huge devices to the simulator and connect them to it. “It’s the only one in the world of its kind,” he said.

The simulator will be available to test the impact of wind turbines on the electrical grid, Rigas said. But manufacturers of large-scale electrical equipment also can pay Clemson to test that equipment in a setting that responds like the national electrical grid. The simulator allows the products to be tested, but their deficiencies can’t harm the grid.

That service will bring in money for Restoration Institute activities, Rigas said. “Clemson’s mission is for it to be self-sufficient.”

Already response from private companies is huge, Rigas said. “Live testing at 25,000 volts is extremely rare to find.”

A few companies already have signed contracts, he said. “Some companies signed up when it was a design on paper.”

Every week, industry representatives from around the world come to see the facility. It makes sense for them, he said, because they can “save money and time to market and reduce risk.”

Fox said that when a company has a piece of equipment that it wants to test, it usually has to convince a utility to connect to an outer portion of the grid. That is, one that provides power to an outlying area so the impact would not be widespread if something went wrong.

But that doesn’t really provide an accurate test, Fox said, because it doesn’t test the equipment on a busier portion of the grid. The grid-simulator will provide real-world conditions, he said. “We can test for the worst-case-scenario.”

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.

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