Pushing Wind Turbines to the Breaking Point in South Carolina

Pushing Wind Turbines to the Breaking Point in South Carolina
A 15-megawatt wind turbine drivetrain testing rig is seen inside Clemson University's $110 million Energy Systems Innovation Center in North Charleston, S.C., on Nov. 13
Photograph by Bruce Smith/AP Photo

The future of the U.S. wind industry is taking shape in an unlikely place. On an abandoned naval base, in an impoverished part of North Charleston, S.C., a World War II-era warehouse has been refurbished into a gleaming white, 82,000-square-foot engineering facility that will be the proving grounds for the next generation of wind turbines.

Inside, stacks of 1980s-era computers, empty desks, and racks of old ship parts left behind when the base closed in 1995, have been replaced by some of the biggest and most advanced pieces of industrial testing equipment in the world. As companies such as General Electric and Vestas Wind Systems design bigger, more reliable turbines, they’ll bring their prototypes here to run them through a battery of tests to simulate some of the harshest weather conditions imaginable.

Courtesy Renk Labeco Test Systems/Clemson University Restoration Institute
Courtesy Renk Labeco Test Systems/Clemson University Restoration Institute
“The idea is to break them, so we know how and where these turbines and drivetrains fail over time,” says John Kelly, executive director of the Clemson University Restoration Institute, which houses the new testing facility, dubbed the Energy Innovation Center. In 2009, Clemson won a $45 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a facility where the wind industry could test its latest technology. Clemson then raised an additional $53 million for the project.

The facility’s main attraction are two giant test rigs that have been built inside the 6-acre warehouse. Weighing hundreds of tons each, and reaching as high as four stories tall, the rigs look like something off the set of a science-fiction movie. Indeed, the on-site construction workers have taken to calling the larger, 15-megawatt rig the Stargate, after the 1994 sci-fi flick that depicts a piece of alien technology that opens wormholes across space and time.

The rigs are known as dynamometers—complex hydraulic devices that can replicate the rotation and bending forces that a wind turbine places on a drivetrain. The biggest rig includes an 11,000-horsepower motor that can simulate the kind of severe force a turbine would experience in a hurricane.

The rigs can simulate years’ worth of conditions in just a few months, something that in engineering circles is known as HALT, or highly accelerated life testing. “We can pack 20 years into 6 or 8 months of testing,” says Curtiss Fox, an electrical engineer at Clemson. “Companies can stress these machines so that they get those failures to show up prematurely.”

Wind turbine manufacturers will lease the testing rigs for months at a time at rates negotiated with Clemson. Officials declined to estimate what those rates would be. GE already has a prototype of its drivetrain on-site that will soon be hooked up to the smaller 7.5-Mw rig. “Business is good, and we’re not even open yet,” says Elizabeth Colbert Busch, director of business development at Clemson’s Restoration Institute (and sister of Stephen Colbert).

The testing facility comes online as the U.S. wind industry is growing faster than it ever has. According to the Energy Department, wind energy last year became the No. 1 source of new U.S. electricity generation capacity for the first time ever, representing 43 percent of all new electric additions and accounting for $25 billion in U.S. investment.

Still, wind accounts for only about 3.5 percent of all electricity generated in the U.S. To get really big and to compete with coal and natural gas, the industry will need to start deploying turbines offshore, where the wind resources are among the greatest, particularly along the East Coast.

Some of the best wind resources in the U.S. are offshore
Some of the best wind resources in the U.S. are offshore
National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Building wind farms on land is hard. Building them out in the ocean is a whole lot harder. Not only are they harder to set up, but maintaining and repairing them becomes vastly more expensive 40 miles offshore. Massive crane barges capable of lifting pieces of equipment that weigh hundreds of tons are needed. All that gets baked into the price of electricity, the wind farm is able to produce. The wind industry realizes that to build offshore wind farms that are cost-effective, it needs to build fewer, bigger turbines that are less prone to failure. That’s where the testing facility comes in.

“If you take a turbine out in the ocean—you can imagine when those blades become the length of a football field—the kinds of forces that storms and hurricanes can exert are massive,” Fox says. “The goal of this project is to limit that kind of repair work and make more robust designs where you don’t have to do that for 20 years.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE