Wind turbine blade

Randy Sturgill of Oceana examines a wind turbine blade at Clemson University’s Dominion Energy Research Center, the nation’s largest testing facility for wind generators.


In a stark, gray niche at Charleston, South Carolina’s working harbor, engineers from Clemson University and their industrial partners are breathing life into the next generation of offshore wind turbines, structures that have the potential to power thousands of homes without polluting the air or water.

Wind power has come a long way from the days of centuries-old, iconic pumps in the Netherlands. There are now 25,000 wind turbines in the United States, and Clemson is working with companies across the globe to put more, larger generators offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, said Meredyth Crichton, director of the Dominion Energy Research Center.

Clemson University’s Dominion Energy Innovation Center is a leader in testing and refining wind turbine energy and building the next-generation electrical smart grid.

The center merges bench-testing of wind power components with the new vision of a “smart” electrical grid. It’s a mix that has garnered attention from some of the largest energy companies in the world.

While some U.S. leaders dismiss wind power as a subsidy-driven scheme, that’s not the tone at the nation’s largest test bench for wind power generation and a smart grid for the future of electricity. Duke Energy, Dominion Resources, Shell and other major players send engineers to the Clemson facility.

“What we’re looking for is reliability,” said Crichton. “We test various components, some of which take four months to set up.”

The center is the country’s largest wind power testing lab and the world’s most advanced drivetrain testing facility, hosting a 7.5-megawatt and a 15-megawatt generator connected to an advanced electrical grid. Every 1.5-megawatts can power about 350 homes, so the larger turbine can supply power for roughly 3,500 residences. The goal here is to make and test the right parts for the job.

The center has been up and running for eight years, and received a major boost in 2009 when the U.S. Department of Energy granted $45-million to:

• Accelerate development of new wind turbine technology;

• Reduce the cost of delivered energy to grow the market; and

• Support plans for energy independence.

The larger test bench wind unit weighs 400 tons. It had to be attached to the ship that brought it from Germany: if the generator had shifted during transit, it could have sunk the ship during transit, said Crichton.

Every detail of the generator is bench-tested against anything the world can toss at it, including hurricanes and tornadoes, she explained, adding that the blades can be angled into the wind and locked down during disastrous weather.

Engineers are looking for ways to make turbines last 30-50 years. The harsh environment of the ocean requires automated maintenance, to the maximum extent possible.

Some of Clemson’s industrial partners fabricate parts for nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, Crichton said.

“We’re trying to build on that.”

Smart grid

The facility’s eGrid center can simulate electric power transmission systems anywhere on the globe, including various problems and interruptions and how to fix them. It has about 120 miles of power lines, and engineers throw an assortment of issues at them then determine how to repair them and protect the grid from future threats.

The system also allows testing of how wind turbines will interact with the grid and can simulate mechanical and electrical interactions.

“The simulator will provide electrical testing beyond fault ride-through testing for the Center, to provide a complete suit of electrical testing solutions to the power conversion industry as a whole…” stated Crichton.

Wind power is not a dream for Clemson’s engineers. It’s a challenge that they take on every day.