Wind farms are on the rise as the US increasingly relies on renewable energy and the country's largest wind turbine test facility – in North Charleston – plays a supporting role.
The Clemson University facility is testing the giant machines that convert wind into electricity at the Dominion Energy Innovation Center. The Duke Energy eGRID in the same system tests the compatibility of wind and solar power systems with power grids.
A US $ 45 million federal grant in 2009 that helped build the facility was the US Department of Energy's largest single wind energy grant at the time.
Three of Deepwater Wind's turbines stand in the water off Block Island, RI. The von Biden government is working hard to ramp up offshore wind energy along the east coast. File / AP
The $ 98 million facility opened in 2013 in a former military warehouse on the former Charleston Naval Base with support from utility companies, the state, and private donors.
“At first there was a lot of emphasis on wind, but the idea was that not just wind, but other renewable sources, too, would increasingly become a larger part of the grid,” said Danny Kassis, vice president, customer relations and renewable energy, Dominion Energie.
He said decarbonization – moving away from fossil fuels – is clearly where power generation is moving.
“When you combine that with reliability and affordability, I don't see they're not a gamer,” Kassis said of the Clemson facility.
The focus of the wind turbine work has so far been on onshore machines, which are smaller than the offshore machines.
“That's because most of the electricity in the US is on land,” 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 “specifically for offshore wind turbines,” the US Department of Energy announced when it opened in 2013. The U.S. doesn't have utility-scale offshore wind farms yet, but they are coming.
The country's first such offshore wind farm, the Vineyard Wind Project near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was approved by the federal government on May 11, The Associated Press reported. The $ 2 billion project is expected to produce enough electricity to power 400,000 households.
In late 2020, Dominion Energy submitted plans for the country's largest offshore wind farm off the coast of Virginia, where wind turbines could power 660,000 households. Dominion secured access to the offshore facility in 2013, the same year the Clemson facility opened.
Offshore wind is already an important source of energy overseas and it continues to grow.
This year, South Korea announced a $ 43 billion plan for the world's largest offshore wind farm, Reuters reported. This country's wind power is expected to increase tenfold, producing as much electricity as six nuclear reactors.
While other nations introduced offshore wind farms years ago, only a handful of turbines turn in tests off Virginia and Rhode Island in the United States. That will change quickly this decade as major projects are planned off Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia.
“We can potentially serve the east coast from here,” said Steve Warner, Clemson's vice president of corporate partnerships and strategic initiatives.
At the end of 2020, there were nearly 69,000 wind turbines delivering power in the US, mostly in the west and the upper Midwest. Few are in the south, though Amazon has a 104-turbine wind farm near Elizabeth City, NC
Even the smaller onshore wind turbines used by utility companies cost millions of dollars each, and wind farms can have hundreds. Clemson's turbine test facility ensures that the expensive machines will perform as planned under potentially extreme conditions over their estimated 25-year lifespan.
In particular, Clemson is testing the equipment known as the nacelle, the drive train and the gearbox for the wind turbine. A nacelle on an offshore wind turbine can be about the size of a city bus, and the test equipment that emulates the forces exerted by wind turbine blades is massive.
The blades of a GE Haliade-X wind turbine are each 117 meters long. Clemson's test equipment – a 7.5 megawatt device and a giant 15 megawatt device – enable simulations without shovels. 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 in a year of multi-year testing of a General Electric onshore wind turbine model that has not been launched. It is the fourth turbine, all GE models tested on this machine.
Clemson's Dominion Energy Innovation Center staff will monitor the 7.5 megawatt test rig in North Charleston on May 7, 2021. Brad Nettles / Staff
“The 2 megawatt device we tested here is the most widely used in the field today,” said Crichton.
Clemson's 15 megawatt rig – one of the largest in the world – was used for a five-year test on a Vestas MHI turbine. When Clemson signed that $ 23 million contract in 2017, the 9.5-megawatt V164 turbine was named the most powerful in the world.
The 430-ton turbine could produce enough electricity to supply 8,000 households with electricity a year.
Just four years later, manufacturers are producing wind turbines with an output of up to 15 megawatts.
A second multi-year test of an offshore wind turbine, a GE model, is planned at the Clemson plant.
“As offshore in the US grows, they will set up manufacturing facilities and supply chains,” said Crichton.
The promise of potential jobs in the wind industry was touted when Clemson's plant opened, and some officials later expressed frustration at the lack of growth in offshore wind.
“We are maybe a decade ahead of us,” Senator Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, an early proponent of the project, told The Post and Courier in 2019.
Tanju Karanfil, Clemson's vice president of research, said the turbine testing work had helped jobs in Greenville and elsewhere.
“We coordinate with GE in Greenville and overseas,” he said. “This helps make GE competitive in the world market.”
“With President Biden's new focus on offshore wind and renewable energy, we are able to make a difference,” said Karanfil. “Yes, we have contracts right now, but this could help us stay busy going forward.”
Jesse Leonard, Clemson's Duke Energy eGrid chief engineer at the Clemson's Restoration Institute, works on a battery bank at the North Charleston facility. Brad Nettles / staff
The huge turbine test benches are a dramatic sight at the Clemson plant. Less glamorous, but very important, is the eGRID test, which mainly focuses on the software that keeps the lights on.
“We can force things that would normally result in a power outage and see if the equipment can drive through,” said Jesse Leonard, chief engineer at Duke Energy eGrid. “If we succeed here, you will never know what we did.”