Clemson campus for wind, green energy research likely to be thriving in 2 years

The Clemson University Restoration Institute campus on the old Navy Base in North Charleston will require about $175 million in construction and will be complete in about two years officials say. Source: Clemson University Restoration Institute

Like much of the former Charleston Naval Base in North Charleston, the buildings around Clemson University's wind-turbine testing facility have seen better days.

But the dusty concrete skeletons of old industrial structures will spring to life in the next two years and form a 26-acre campus where the minds of university and business leaders will merge to research and test the clean, green energy systems of the future, officials at the Clemson University Restoration Institute say.

John Kelly, the institute's executive director, said the $98 million wind-turbine testing center on which the institute broke ground last fall, has attracted interest from energy companies that want to work with the university on research and testing new energy products and systems. The institute plans to create a five-building campus, mostly by restoring old buildings that private companies will use as laboratories.

Kelly said that over the next two years, $175 million will be invested in campus construction, with most of the money coming from grants and private sources. Only about $10 million of it will come from the state, he said. And most of that will go toward building a new Graduate Engineering Center on the Cooper River. That building will provide space for educational activities as well as office space for university and business leaders. Students who study there will interact regularly with industry professionals, he said. "Basically, from the time students set foot in that building they will be looking for jobs," he said.

The campus design is based on the model for Clemson's International Center for Automotive Research, known as ICAR, in Greenville. That campus blends experts from the university with research professionals from BMW, Michelin, Timken and other corporate partners.

Kelly said the entire campus should be complete in about two years. That includes construction of the engineering center, tearing down and rebuilding a building for materials manufacturing innovation, and renovating three large buildings as laboratories.

Clemson has to hold off on using a portion of its land on the former Navy base until a controversial rail plan that would place a train-assembly operation there is settled.

But the university can move ahead with campus construction on the 26 acres along the river, Kelly said.

Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, the institute's director of business development, said the university already has private partners in mind for all of the buildings. Arrangements with the companies are in varying stages of the negotiation process, she said. But essentially, "all of the buildings are spoken for."

Kelly said Clemson and the Charleston area have all of the elements necessary to launch the ambitious research and testing program for wind turbines and other energy systems, especially a deep-water port. Large wind turbines can weigh 400 tons and are too heavy to be moved over roads or via rail.

The university is able to build the wind-turbine testing facility, which was the catalyst for the new campus, by landing a $45 million grant from the federal Energy Department through the federal stimulus program. The state and private donors provided another $53 million.

Sen. Paul Campbell, a Goose Creek Republican who served as a high-level Alcoa executive, said, "Clemson has done an excellent job of talking to companies" that might become part of the new campus. "They're companies we would love to have in South Carolina," said Campbell, who is a graduate of Clemson.

Everything has fallen into place to make this campus an academic and economic success, he said. "This could be bigger than ICAR."

Kelly and Colbert-Busch said that landing the grant that led to the development of the campus was a long shot. But as Restoration Institute staffers were working together preparing the application, it became increasingly clear to them that the fit between the institute and the grant's requirements was so perfect, they were almost certain they would get it.

"South Carolina is uniquely positioned to do this," Colbert-Busch said of wind and other green energy. "The window of opportunity is here. It's for us to take."

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.