Clemson poised to play role in first U.S. offshore wind farm (copy)

Businessmen and engineers tour the 15-megawatt turbine test room at Clemson University's SCE&G Energy Innovation Center in North Charleston. Clemson has used a smaller test rig over the past three years, but it will fire up the larger unit next year to test the world's most powerful wind turbine. File/Staff

The world’s most powerful wind turbine will be put to the test in North Charleston next year, running through a gamut of trials at Clemson University’s energy research facility here.

Clemson will receive as much as $23 million to test the turbine designed by MHI Vestas Offshore Wind, the Upstate university announced Tuesday. The enormous machine produces enough electricity to power more than 8,000 homes, the most of any turbine in production.

On the former Navy base in North Charleston, researchers will focus on the gear box at the center of the turbine instead of the giant blades. They’ll connect the turbine’s 68-foot-long core to a device that simulates real-world conditions.

When the rig is set up next year, Denmark-based MHI Vestas will be able to put its V164 turbine through the rigors of operating offshore. The test bench, known as a dynamometer, uses a motor to replicate the wind conditions the turbine might face — whether that’s a placid day or a nasty gale.

Clemson has been doing this sort of work for the last three years at a smaller test rig inside its SCE&G Energy Innovation Center. But it hasn’t yet fired up its largest unit, said Randy Collins, an associate vice president who manages the university’s work in Charleston.

The university initially jumped for the bigger test rig because it expected manufacturers would start designing larger turbines capable of generating more electricity per unit — and making wind energy more economical. Collins says the advent of the 9.5-megawatt V164 model validates that decision.

"For me the gratifying part of this is that we actually have taken this thing all the way from conception ... all the way through to reality," Collins said. "I think there were some people who thought we’d never use it or never have a need for something like this."

The five-year contract will underwrite some of the costs of building the test center. The North Charleston facility cost $98 million, nearly half of which was funded by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Energy kicked in $45 million, the largest grant Clemson has ever received.

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The sheer size of the turbines like MHI Vestas’s 430-ton model is part of why Clemson built its energy research center in the Lowcountry in the first place. The university decided it needed to be close to the port to make it easier to transport equipment, so it landed a spot along the Cooper River with a pier to take deliveries by water.

The new turbine is expected to come by ship early next year before testing begins in the summer. An exact timeline hasn’t been set.

"We are delighted to have found such world-class facilities to carry out vital testing of the world’s most powerful wind turbine," said Jakob Sobye, senior director of technology at MHI Vestas, in a statement. "The testing and verification of the gearbox and bearings will allow us to optimize the performance and reliability of the wind turbine."

Collins says it’s crucial to run lab trials on turbines because they’re hard to maintain once they’re installed. That’s especially true if they’re designed for use offshore, where it’s particularly difficult to get people and parts to the turbine.

The typical wind turbine has a 25-year life expectancy, Collins said. Researchers’ challenge will be to anticipate what it will go through once it leaves North Charleston’s simulated winds.   

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.

Thad Moore is a reporter on The Post and Courier’s Watchdog and Public Service team, a native of Columbia and a graduate of the University of South Carolina. His career at the newspaper started on the business desk in 2016.