Tucked away on the former Navy Base in North Charleston, equipment capable of testing the world’s most powerful wind turbines stands ready.
A 15-megawatt wind turbine testing rig — the largest in the country and among the largest in the world — sits within Clemson University’s SCE&G Energy Innovation Center.
The mammoth, circular machine, made of steel and concrete, is more than three stories tall and 20 feet wide. Down the hall is a smaller, yet still powerful version: a 7.5-MW wind turbine test rig.
These machines — capable of mechanical and electrical testing — stress test the drivetrain systems of some of the largest wind turbines being produced today. Companies from around the world bring their wind turbines to the site along the Cooper River.
Clemson University opened the facility in 2013, using nearly $100 million in federal, state and private funding, to help bring offshore wind technology to market faster and at lower costs, officials said.
Daniel Poneman, the former deputy secretary of energy, said during the opening, “The Clemson testing facility represents a critical investment to ensure America leads in this fast-growing global industry — helping to make sure the best, most efficient wind energy technologies are developed and manufactured in the United States.”
Officials said the center’s testing capabilities would speed development and deployment of new wind turbine technology and support the country’s push toward energy independence.
Curtiss Fox, director of research operations at the innovation center, said the tests will help manufacturers increase reliability and reduce risks, therefore lowering the cost of wind energy over time.
Clemson plans to double its 12-person staff by the end of the year to handle the growing workload, Fox said.
How it works
Companies bring their wind turbine prototypes to the facility on huge tractor-trailer trucks or on containerships via the Cooper River.
The wind turbine models are then hooked up to the machines, a process that can take up to two months before testing can begin.
The staff of engineers, scientists and researchers, as well as Clemson undergraduate and graduate students, run tests and collect real-time data to determine how the equipment will survive in natural environments.
The type and length of testing varies widely depending on the factors — such as reliability and durability — each customer wants to assess. Testing times can range from three months to two years.
Some of these trials can simulate what 20 years in the field would be like for the turbines. Such assessments show how the turbines would withstand environmental wear and tear. Other experiments show how a wind turbine reacts to strong, unpredictable wind conditions or electrical disturbances.
Companies use the test rigs to assess their wind turbines’ design and reliability. They can then use the findings to potentially tweak plans or decrease costs ahead of sending products to market.
Randy Collins, associate vice president for Clemson University’s Charleston Programs, said the facility also helps students get hands-on, industry-relevant experience by working with the staff to troubleshoot issues.
“Students work hand in hand with the research scientists in North Charleston on projects. ... Students get exposure to these systems and equipment they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Collins said. “This is really a driver towards getting our students interested in this industry in general.”
Two for two
GE, which produces wind turbines in Greenville, signed on in 2013 as the facility’s first customer. GE Renewable Energy tests its wind turbine drivetrain technology on the 7.5-MW test rig, investigating the turbine’s capabilities, reliability and efficiency.
GE officials said the in-state testing facility is a critical part of the company’s efforts to grow the country’s offshore wind industry.
The Clemson facility landed its second customer in the fall when Denmark-based MHI Vestas Offshore Wind signed on as the first customer to use the 15-MW testing bench.
The company will test and verify its 9.5-MW wind turbine in North Charleston over the next five years. The $23 million contract involves Clemson engineers vetting the wind turbine’s gearbox and main bearings.