Converting a giant warehouse at the former Navy base into a test center for massive wind turbines out in the ocean will keep about 600 workers busy for the next few months, a project manager says.
The center also could be the catalyst for thousands of more jobs if the right pieces fall into place, according to Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, director of business development for Clemson University Restoration Institute's offshore wind-turbine testing center.
Workers started converting an 82,264-square-foot warehouse in March. The first clients are expected in April.
They will haul in machines the size of houses, each designed to generate enough electricity to power a small city. The machines will be tested for durability before giant blades are attached and they are anchored in waters off the coasts of Europe and Asia.
Colbert-Busch has been talking to local business groups about the center's potential. She got some hopes up Wednesday at a Berkeley Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
"I see this as more than a think tank," said Elaine Morgan, the chamber's chief executive officer. "This could be a catalyst for 20,000 jobs."
The estimate comes from the U.S. Energy Department, which is pushing utilities to get 20 percent of their electricity from wind power by 2030. Making that goal a reality would create up to 20,000 jobs in South Carolina, the agency estimated.
General Electric already is building wind turbines in Greenville. They are designed to be used on land in China.
Santee Cooper has been studying the feasibility of offshore wind turbines and is seeking a $3.5 million to $4 million grant for an offshore tower for further study.
"I do think to get offshore wind to the next level, it will take a group of organizations working together helping pay for the research," said Mollie Gore, communications director for the state-owned utility.
State lawmakers created a committee to study whether wind energy was feasible in South Carolina. In January 2010 the group asked the Legislature to pass a resolution affirming the value of wind power. That resolution has not yet been passed.
"I think we can make that happen next year," said Sen. Paul Campbell, a Goose Creek Republican and committee chairman.
Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director for the Coastal Conservation League, was also a member of the task force.
"I think people are starting to understand this is a real economic development opportunity for the state," Davis said.
"There needs to be more visible leadership at the state level (to draw in federal money)."
The $98 million project is funded by a $45 million federal Energy Department grant and $53 million from the state and private donors.