NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Amid dust and din, a cavernous 70-year-old warehouse once used by the Navy is being transformed to play a key role in the nation's energy future.
Sometime this summer, workers will jockey a 150-ton rig designed to test the drive trains of offshore wind turbines into a massive hole in the floor of the testing facility on the campus of Clemson University's Restoration Institute in South Carolina.
The unit, capable of testing turbines that can produce 7.5 megawatts of power, will be tested and online by year's end. A second, larger testing unit, one weighing 400 tons and capable of testing turbines that can generate up to 15 megawatts will also be installed — even though turbines that size have yet to be built.
A 15-megawatt turbine could provide power to about 6,000 homes. Using larger turbines offshore would mean the same power could be generated with fewer units needing maintenance and repair.
The test facility also is being retrofitted to withstand both earthquakes and hurricanes.
Small earthquakes are not unusual in the Charleston area. The turbine testing facility is not far from a fault that caused the devastating 1886 quake that killed more than 100 people. It's been more than 20 years since the last major hurricane hit the South Carolina coast — Hurricane Hugo in 1989, a Category 4 storm that packed 135 mph winds.
When completed, the nearly $100 million facility will be the world's largest wind turbine testing center and employ about 80 people. There are two other testing facilities, one in Spain and one in Colorado, but the Clemson test site will handle far larger units.
"We think there is an enormous potential here," said John Kelly, the executive director of the Restoration Institute.
While there are no wind turbines in U.S. waters yet, that's the way the nation is moving, he said.
"As wind farms build offshore there will be deployment sites. They are going to create jobs and lots of jobs," he said. The Department of Energy estimates that the industry could create as many as 20,000 jobs.
Earlier this month, the national Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced that an assessment found there would be no significant environmental impacts from issuing wind energy leases in federal waters off the mid-Atlantic coast. That clears the way for energy lease sales off Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Delaware.
Already there are two partnerships of companies in Virginia looking to develop wind farms in federal waters off the Atlantic coast.
South Carolina is in a unique position to help the industry. The deep water in Charleston Harbor allows companies to bring their turbines easily to the Clemson lab for testing, and South Carolina could easily serve the needs of East Coast wind farms through the state's shipping port.
Testing is key because it's far more expensive to have something go wrong with a turbine offshore and have to fix it at sea. A 15-megawatt turbine would likely have blades reaching 100 yards above the ocean surface.
"We basically break them," Kelly said. "Our job is to find the failure points so companies can fix the failure points, which means when the turbine is going offshore there is less maintenance."
The Department of Energy gave Clemson $45 million in federal stimulus money for the test facility, with state and private donors providing another $53 million.
Clemson also plans a graduate center on its 26-acre campus, meaning there will be experts in wind technology, an attraction that could draw manufacturers. Once it is established, the industry will mean jobs in manufacturing, deploying and installing the wind turbines, and in logistics.
"There will be manufacturing near a port. I hope it's here. I would do everything in my power to make sure it's here. This is an ideal location," Kelly said.