There are no wind farms in South Carolina, so people may wonder why one of the world’s largest facilities to test wind turbine drivetrains was built in North Charleston.

The opening of Clemson University’s SCE&G Energy Innovation Center on the former Navy base last week is not tied to any plan for providing the Palmetto State with wind-generated electric power.

Rather, the $108 million facility is a key part of a national effort to harness a clean energy source Europe began to embrace 22 years ago — offshore wind energy.

The U.S. has no offshore wind farms, but nearly a dozen plans for offshore wind power in other states are moving through the federal permitting process.

“It’s really now that we’re starting to see the action taking place,” said Brian O’Hara, president of the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition. “This (facility) really is a feather in the cap for South Carolina and the Southeast.”

Across the nation, except in the South, land-based wind power has been growing fast, with more than 45,000 land-based turbines now in use. Wind power accounted for 42 percent of the new electricity generating power in the U.S. last year, and there are enough wind farms to power 15 million homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

That’s a modest start. The U.S. Department of Energy has a goal of generating 20 percent of the nation’s power from wind, by 2030, up from less than 4 percent today, and for that kind of power offshore wind needs to play a role.

That’s where the Clemson facility comes in.

The Clemson initiative is part of a nationwide network of wind power testing and development facilities supported by the U.S. Department of Energy. It received far more DOE funding — $44.6 million — than any of the 45 other initiatives so far. Public and private funds paid for the rest.

“The location, on the old Navy base near the port, gave us the ability to compete against some of the biggest and best universities in the country to win the Department of Energy grant to build the campus,” university President Jim Barker said.

Wind power here?

The opening of the testing center does not mean South Carolina will get electricity from wind power, but it does mean the Palmetto State is expected to play an important role in advancing wind power.

General Electric, for example, designs wind turbines at its facility in Greenville, and will be using the North Charleston center for testing.

“The Clemson facility is great because of its proximity to Greenville, where the turbines are designed and then put into prototype and tested (in North Charleston) based on those designs,” said Lindsay Theile, communications manager for GE’s wind business.

The federal government has been leasing offshore areas in several parts of the country for wind farm development, while simultaneously developing infrastructure to improve wind power equipment.

The U.S. is not alone in that pursuit. In England, a facility similar to Clemson’s — it also has a 15 megawatt turbine test rig and an electric grid simulator, plus a turbine blade testing area — opened earlier this summer. There’s another facility under construction in Denmark.

The goals at each location are not only to advance wind power and lower costs, but to capture jobs from companies that build the machines, and those in the supply, transportation, port, and construction businesses.

“You’re going to see a lot of activity from turbine manufacturers bringing their turbines here for testing, and that’s going to expose them to North Charleston,” O’Hara said.

“This is an industry that doesn’t really exist yet in the U.S., and when it does, the supply chain will need to be located in coastal areas,” he said. “This stuff is just so big that you need to move it over water.”

Public-private R&D

At taxpayer-supported locations around the country, some facilities will test turbine blades longer than football fields, while others will test components and conduct research.

The Clemson facility is the largest of the nation’s two drivetrain testing locations, both of which opened this year. The idea is that years or decades of wear on a turbine can be simulated in a matter of months, helping to identify problems and improve efficiency.

“The size of the facility is attractive to us so we can test gearbox capabilities at higher rates and simulate events,” said Theile, at GE. “It also provides the opportunity for a test facility if GE expands to larger drivetrains in the future.”

Turbines rated for up to 7.5 and 15 megawatts can be tested in North Charleston, while a facility in Colorado can test turbines up to 5 megawatts.

Today, only the largest turbines designed for offshore use need testing rigs that large. Land-based wind farms use smaller turbines.

General Electric’s most widely-deployed turbine, for example, is a 1.5 megawatt model, and GE’s largest is a 4.1-megawatt model for near-shore use. But the industry is moving toward larger machinery, in search of efficiency and cost reductions, and offshore wind farms demand huge equipment.

Just this week Germany-based manufacturer Siemens inked a deal to sell 97 6-megawatt offshore wind turbines to a Danish utility, for two wind farms estimated to be capable of powering 600,000 homes, according to published news reports.

Meanwhile, two 6-megawatt Siemens turbines have been installed in waters off England’s Essex coast for real-world testing. A similar test is planned in the U.S. off the coast of Virginia, but not for several years.

U.S. plans advance

While there are no U.S. offshore wind farms today, there could be hundreds of turbines spinning by 2020, according to a Department of Energy report. There are 11 projects in advanced stages of development in the Gulf of Mexico off Texas; along the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Massachusetts; and in Lake Erie off the Ohio shore.

In Virginia, the utility company Dominion bid $1.6 million in September to lease 112,800 acres of federal offshore land for a potential wind farm large enough to power 700,000 homes.

“Offshore wind has the potential to provide the largest, scalable renewable resource for Virginia if it can be achieved at reasonable cost to customers,” said Mary C. Doswell, Dominion’s senior vice president for Alternative Energy Solutions, when the plan was announced.

Reasonable cost is a key issue. Offshore wind power is more expensive than other types of generation, but costs are falling.

“Turbines are really just now going above a 3 megawatt capacity up to 6 megawatts, and new technologies are coming into play,” said John Larson, director of Alternative Energy Generation Technologies at Dominion. “The foundations they are going to be installed on are different, using less steel (which saves money).

“You’re not going to find a silver bullet, so you have to look at each component,” he said.

Looking at each component ties in with the Department of Energy’s years-long effort to fund a national network of testing sites.

Dominion is also pursuing DOE funding for a demonstration project that would put two 6-megawatt turbines off the Virginia coast, very close to the area Dominion just leased. Those turbines would be connected to the electric grid for a real-world test of offshore wind power.

Those turbines are expected to be in use by the end of 2017, and would be among the first utility-scale offshore wind turbines in the U.S., helping to evaluate cost concerns and other issues.

“A key part of the demonstration is hurricane survivability,” Larson said.

Southern winds

Dominion’s project, 24 miles off Virginia Beach, is the southern-most of any proposed offshore wind project on the East Coast. Wind maps produced by the government show that constant winds are stronger off the Northeast coast, and stronger winds mean more power.

O’Hara said he expects offshore wind power to be developed off the Southeast coast eventually, however, because lower regional construction costs and shallower water offset the wind strength issues.

“Your costs are determined by, what did it cost to construct and how much energy does it produce,” he said.

Off South Carolina, the strongest winds are found at the northern end of the state near Myrtle Beach. Utility company Santee Cooper set out to study wind resources in 2005, and after concluding there were no good wind farm sites on land, started looking offshore.

“We dropped weather buoys in the ocean as far out as 12 miles,” said Mollie Gore, Santee Cooper’s manager of corporate communications. “They were out there for a year and a half.”

The utility planned to follow up by building an offshore platform, but then decided that was too expensive for Santee Cooper to do on its own, and partners to share the expense have so far not been found.

“The next phase was going to be several million dollars,” Gore said.

“I think its easy for people to look at the national picture and think the Southeast is lagging, but we don’t have the wind they have in Texas, or on the Great Plains,” she said. “We also have considerations they don’t have in Europe, hurricanes being a prime example.”

Reach David Slade at 937-5552