Wind farms are proliferating as the United States increasingly embraces renewable energy, and the nation’s largest wind turbine testing facility — in North Charleston — is playing a supporting role.
The Clemson University facility tests the giant machines that turn wind into electricity at the Dominion Energy Innovation Center. The Duke Energy eGRID in the same facility tests the compatibility of wind and solar power systems with electrical grids.
A $45 million federal grant in 2009 that helped establish the facility was, at the time, the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest single grant for wind power.
The $98 million facility opened in a former military warehouse on the former Charleston Naval Base in 2013, with support from utilities, the state and private donors.
“Initially, there was a lot of emphasis on wind, but the idea was that not only wind, but other renewable sources, would increasingly become a larger part of the grid,” said Danny Kassis, vice president of customer relations and renewables for Dominion Energy.
He said decarbonization — the shift away from fossil fuels — is clearly where power generation is moving.
“When you couple that with reliability and affordability, I don’t see how they are not a player, Kassis said of the Clemson facility.
The focus of the wind turbine work has so far been onshore machines, which are smaller than those used offshore.
“That’s because most of the power in the U.S. is onshore,” said Meredyth Crichton, executive director of the Dominion Energy Innovation Center. She previously worked for GE Renewables, in Greenville.
The facility at the Clemson Restoration Institute was built “particularly for offshore wind,” the U.S. Department of Energy said when it opened in 2013. There aren’t yet any utility-scale offshore wind farms in the U.S., but they are coming.
The nation’s first such offshore wind farm, the Vineyard Wind Project near Cape Cod, Mass., was approved by the federal government May 11, The Associated Press reported. The $2 billion project is expected to produce enough electricity to power 400,000 homes.
In late 2020, Dominion Energy filed construction plans for what would be the nation’s largest offshore wind farm, off the coast of Virginia, where wind turbines could power 660,000 homes. Dominion secured access to the offshore site in 2013, the same year the Clemson facility opened.
Overseas, offshore wind is already an important power source that continues to grow.
This year, South Korea announced a $43 billion plan for the world’s largest offshore wind farm, Reuters reported. It’s expected to increase that nation’s wind energy tenfold, producing as much power as six nuclear reactors.
While other nations embraced offshore wind farms years ago, in the U.S. there are just a handful of turbines spinning, in tests off Virginia and Rhode Island. That’s going to rapidly change in this decade, with large projects planned off Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Virginia.
“We can conceivably serve the Eastern Seaboard from right here,” said Steve Warner, Clemson’s assistant vice president of corporate partnerships and strategic initiatives.
At the end of 2020, there were nearly 69,000 wind turbines providing electricity in the United States, mostly in the West and upper Midwest. Few are in the South, though Amazon has a 104-turbine wind farm near Elizabeth City, N.C.
Even the smaller, land-based wind turbines used by utility companies cost several million dollars each, and wind farms can have hundreds of them. Clemson’s turbine testing facility helps assure that the costly machines will work as planned, under potentially extreme conditions, during their estimated 25-year lifespan.
Specifically, Clemson tests the equipment called the nacelle, the drive train and gearbox for the wind turbine. A nacelle on an offshore wind turbine can be about the size of a city bus, and the testing equipment that replicates the forces exerted by wind turbine blades is massive.
The blades of a GE Haliade-X wind turbine are each 117 yards long. Clemson’s testing rigs — a 7.5- megawatt rig and a huge 15-megawatt rig — allow for simulations without blades. Testing a single wind turbine nacelle and internal components typically takes years, as adjustments are made and tested.
The 7.5-megawatt unit is currently one year into a multiyear test of a General Electric onshore wind turbine model that hasn’t been put on the market. It’s the fourth turbine, all GE models, tested on that machinery.
“The 2-megawatt unit we tested here is now the most widely used in the field,” Crichton said.
Clemson’s 15-megawatt rig — among the largest in the world — has been used for one five-year test, on a Vestas MHI turbine. When Clemson landed that $23 million contract in 2017, the 9.5-megawatt V164 turbine was called the world’s most powerful.
The 430-ton turbine could produce enough electricity to power 8,000 homes for a year.
Just four years later, manufacturers are producing wind turbines that produce up to 15 megawatts.
A second multiyear test of an offshore wind turbine, a GE model, is scheduled at the Clemson…