Thursday, a research campus in North Charleston will be the center of the new energy universe.
A big statement, but it’s a big undertaking, backed by big money in hopes of reducing the cost of energy around the world. ”Some of the equipment we delivered here is as large as my house,” laughed industry veteran Jim Tuten, who was hired by Clemson to oversee the project.
Clemson’s $113 million set of energy labs in North Charleston will be the world’s first 7.5 MW and 15 MW indoor wind testing site and can recreate the force of any kind of weather on power-generating wind turbines. Researchers then, in turn, will capture and recycle that power into an energy grid simulator that allows scientists to mimic what happens when new energy sources are added to the current electric infrastructure–the “grid.”
Clemson University Restoration Institute (CURI) leaders expect about a thousand people at the dedication–many of them industry dignitaries from other parts of the world. “Many of our partners are overseas, much of the industry is European-based or Asia-based,” said Clemson spokesman Peter Hull. “Also, top executives of U.S.-based companies, manufacturers of the wind industries and utility companies.”
The 82,000-square-foot, four-story facility and its technology were funded by U.S. Department of Energy, federal stimulus money, and private-public partners: Siemens USA, Vestas, and GE Energy, to name a few. See advisory board.
Inside the massive building, there is a row of offices for energy companies that do not currently have a presence in the Southeast. This allows them to oversee their work, but each project is isolated, even locked out, of another company’s proprietory testing in the room next door.
For Clemson, the onsite presence of the world’s cutting edge companies is invaluable. The day of the dedication, the university will announce companies that purchased the naming rights to control rooms and areas within the new center.
Turbine testing: how it works
Tuten stood in front of the 15 MW simulator and pointed out parts and fixtures: ”
The center features two dynamometers (instruments that measure force) that can dial in a company’s specs and test how its drive train will operate under all weather conditions, including a hurricane.
“All of that has to be tailored and made very accurate, because when you bolt it up, it’s got to be within thousandths of an inch,” Tuten explained.
Thier findings will save energy companies millions of dollars and months of waiting to measure real weather events. This is especially forward-thinking technology for the U.S, he said. ”The market for wind energy is up. The U.S. is behind the rest of the world, so this gives us a world-class testing situation where we can help bootstrap ourselves up,” Tuten said.
And if the turbine testing part is successful, Tuten said it will be outdated in 10 years or less. That’s because it is designed to help fast-forward the world into the next wave of wind energy.
The grid simulator will have a longer life, however.
Recreating the grid
The microcosm of an energy grid — Clemson’s eGRID—-was the brainchild of a Clemson graduate student.
“It’s unique in the world,” bragged Tuten. “It became his thesis project and the basis for another whole project that took up a third of the building now.”
It will grow with the industry, he said, ”There’s a whole new level of technology based off of wind and solar and things that are not your traditional power sources that the power industry has to learn how to control.”
The industry told Clemson that the grid simulator is critical to ensure the wind turbines have minimal impact to the existing grid and vice-versa, that power disruptions don’t damage these massive machines.
These are machines so massive that many will be delivered on ships to the Port of Charleston Port and then floated down to the CURI on barges.
There was a moment when the projects’ planners were concerned their ideas were a bit quixotic.
“We had a very optimistic schedule. The facility as initially conceived was a lot smaller than this, with a lot less capability. We thought we had a building that was way too big. We have since managed since to grow and fill it with both this program and another one—and the capacities of these have really increased due to the demands of industry,” Tuten said.