By TINA CASEY
The U.S. is poised to develop the next generation of highly efficient large-scale wind power technology, as a massive wind turbine testing project in South Carolina reached a critical construction milestone this month. The new facility, to be operated by Clemson University as the Restoration Institute Drivetrain Testing Facility, will be the largest of its kind in the world.
To add an extra sustainability kick to its renewable energy mission, the DriveTrain Testing Facility will require relatively little new infrastructure. It will reclaim a vacant 1940’s-era Navy warehouse at Clemson University’s Restoration Institute campus in North Charleston, where existing road, rail and dockside resources are close at hand.
The project will also feature energy conservation systems that recapture some of the power used during testing rather than venting it as waste heat.
Planning for the new facility began in 2009 when Clemson University and its partners put up $53 million in funding to match a $45 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the largest grant in the university’s history.
The project broke ground in 2010 and reached a significant phase last week, when contractors began pouring the concrete foundation for the turbine test beds.
The facility is expected to be ready to receive its first turbine by December 2012, give or take a few weeks, and then it will undergo a four-month period to evaluate the control systems and other analytic equipment. The fully commissioned facility will be open for use by any qualified public or private partner early in 2013.
This type of “open source” facility enables private sector companies to share R&D infrastructure that would be prohibitively expensive on an individual basis. The public funding comes in because, ideally, the new technologies produce general benefits to the public in the form of more and better energy sources.
Another recent example of an open source facility is Tulane University’s new Riversphere project, which won a $3 million DOE grant in 2010 to build a shared platform for developing next-generation hydrokinetic turbines.
Clemson’s Drivetrain Facility will be capable of conducting full-scale tests for wind turbine drivetrains up to the 15-megawatt range (a drivetrain transfers the energy from rotating blades to a generator, which produces electricity).
Given the enormous scale of modern wind turbines, it would be virtually impossible to conduct large-scale tests in a closed facility with the blades attached. The Drivetrain Facility is designed to simulate the force of the blades under actual field conditions.
The new facility will come online at a critical period for the U.S. wind industry.
Though the Department of Energy has estimated that the U.S. could derive 20 percent of its energy needs from wind power by 2030, the domestic wind industry has been beset by uncertainty over the stability of federal support, primarily in the form of a key wind energy tax credit that is set to expire at the end of this year.
The domestic offshore wind sector is in a particularly vulnerable spot. Though the U.S. is a global leader in the development of land-based wind capacity, it has yet to deploy a commercial offshore wind turbine.
To help push the offshore wind industry along, in 2010 the Department of the Interior entered into a memorandum of understanding with 10 East Coast states to form the Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium.
The consortium was designed to smooth the development of offshore wind resources all along the Atlantic Coast, including the construction of a “backbone” transmission line.
Despite Clemson’s partnership with the Department of Energy, though, South Carolina was one of three East Coast states that declined to sign the agreement. The others were Georgia and Florida.
Regardless of the reasons for declining official membership, South Carolina did designate Clemson University to represent the state at consortium meetings, and last summer representatives from Clemson met with several agencies from the federal government and consortium member North Carolina to discuss accelerating offshore wind energy development in the southeast.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley also expressed support for offshore wind power development earlier this spring during a televised interview with comedian Steven Colbert, who has a relative working on the Clemson project.
Image from Shutterstock