KEARNEY COLUMN: Wind power running into headwinds

Part of Clemson University's wind turbine drivetrain testing facility is taking shape on the former Navy base in North Charleston. This image is from April. (Provide/Clemson University/Multivista)

Given our precarious dependence on oil and the global warming that has resulted, it would seem clear that efforts to convert the winds into amps are worthwhile and here to stay.

But after a surge in the 2000s, the industry now seems to be facing serious headwinds.

That’s according to an article published last month in The New York Times, “Tax Credit in Doubt, Wind Power Industry Is Withering.”

The report noted that “weak demand for electricity, stiff competition from cheap natural gas and cheaper options from Asian competitors” have conspired to eliminate 10,000 jobs from the American wind sector over the past three or four years.

Fewer orders for the pricey wind-catching and converting components have meant more layoffs.

Then there’s the federal wind energy tax credit, which has boosted the industry by $1 billion annually but is scheduled to expire at the end of this year. President Barack Obama supports another extension, whereas Republican challenger Mitt Romney argues the wind industry needs to learn how to survive without government subsidies.

These developments are particularly relevant to the Charleston area as Clemson University is building what will become the world’s largest wind turbine drivetrain testing facility on the former Navy base along the Cooper River.

Of the $98 million cost of the project, $45 million comes courtesy of a U.S. Department of Energy grant. Construction began last year, and by next spring, both the 7.5-megawatt and 15-megawatt test rigs are scheduled to be online.

Clemson and economic development officials on all levels have high hopes for the operation and its potential to create a wind-energy cluster in the Lowcountry. The local facility will serve customers from all over the world, but what about its American customers and collaborators?

Is the industry in real trouble or is this just temporary turbulence that no one will remember in a couple of decades?

The answer, I dare say, is blowing in the wind. But in the short term, it sounds like we’ll get an answer in early November.