NORTH CHARLESTON ­– At more than three-stories tall, the 15-megawatt wind testing dynamometer is the centerpiece of Clemson University’s SCE&G Energy Innovation Center. Made of steel and concrete, the behemoth measures more than 20 feet wide at its center, its circle shape resembling a digital giant’s eye set inside a massive base.

The large rig can test wind turbines that generate up to 15 megawatts.

The large rig can test wind turbines that generate up to 15 megawatts.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Twenty-four red valves – each twice the size of a basketball – encircle the hub, where companies will attach their largest and most expensive wind turbine prototypes to be put to the test.

Every few months, massive tractor-trailer trucks haul in large-scale power inverters, prototype equipment and nacelles – the part of a wind turbine that sits atop the tower and holds the spinning blades – for testing at the 82,000-square-foot, $98-million facility. Companies from all the over the globe have leveraged the technology, infrastructure and know-how of Clemson to put its equipment through the kinds of rigors needed to confidently send the finished products to market.

Outside the 15-megawatt testing bay and down the labyrinth of purple and orange corridors, it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t always like this.

The Energy Innovation Center dates back to 2009, when the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy awarded a $45 million grant to Clemson. It is the largest single award in university history and largest single grant by the U.S. DOE for wind power. Coupled with an additional $53 million in private and state contributions, the purpose was to design, build and operate a facility capable of full-scale, highly accelerated testing of next-generation wind turbine drive-train technology.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy objectives for the project were to:

  • Accelerate the development and deployment of new wind turbine technology,
  • Reduce the cost of energy that will result in further growth in the market leading to economic development and
  • Support the country’s push towards energy independence.

Almost eight years later, those objectives are being met. Dozens of clients ranging from Johnson Controls to General Electric have taken advantage of the capabilities of the facility strategically located at the Clemson University Restoration Institute’s (CURI) campus at the former U.S. Naval Base in North Charleston.

TThe SCE&G Energy Innovation Center houses the wind turbine testing facility and the Duke Energy eGrid.

The SCE&G Energy Innovation Center houses the wind turbine testing facility and the Duke Energy eGrid.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

There are three main buildings on the CURI academic campus: the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, best known for its scientific and restorative work of historical artifacts; the new Zucker Family Graduate Education Center, which offers master’s degrees and doctorates in electrical engineering, computer engineering and mechanical engineering, as well as a Ph.D. in computer science and a Master of Fine Arts and a Master of Science in digital production arts; and the Energy Innovation Center.

Inside the Energy Innovation Center, there are three main parts: the Duke Energy Electrical Grid Research Innovation and Development (eGRID) and two different sized wind-testing beds. Any of them can work independently or be paired together to test anything from wind turbine nacelles to solar inverters and other electric and wind-driven prototypes.

The deep hum of giant equipment can be heard from inside the hallways on most days. Engineers surrounded by dozens of LCD screens and computer monitors study colorful real-time data and simulations from all the test devices to figure out ways to make things run better, more cost-efficiently or more reliably.

There are two wind turbine test beds: a 7.5-megawatt test stand, which is designed to handle gearboxes and nacelles for wind turbines that produce up to 7.5 megawatts. Equal parts red, yellow and blue, the two-story structure is never idle. It takes a team of more than 10 researchers and scientists and almost an entire day just to move a nacelle into place and connect it to the dynamometer so that testing can begin.

Over the course of its time there, the nacelle will be put through rigors far exceeding any conditions it would face in the real world.

“The idea being, if it can handle what we put it through, it can pretty much handle anything,” said Clemson research scientist Andrei Mander.

Konstantin Bulgakov, director of testing and validation for the drivetrain testing facility, agreed: “We ride these things hard. When we’re done, manufacturers can be confident their product is good to go.”

Separated by a control room and a large corridor is the giant 15-megawatt test stand, which is a flexible unit that accommodates complete geared and direct-drive wind-turbines in addition to large turbine gearboxes and generators.

Clients typically deliver their products to Clemson to be tested over the course of several months or, in some cases years, depending on need.

“The mission of the drivetrain testing facility was to provide high-value, high-quality and cost-competitive testing services to industry in the hopes of leading to lowering the cost of energy delivered by wind power,” said Randy Collins, associate vice president for Clemson’s Charleston Programs. “I can safely say we’ve met and exceeded that mission, and I expect even greater things for this campus in the years to come.”

The Duke Energy eGRID can simulate the electrical grids of any country in the world.

The Duke Energy eGRID can simulate the electrical grids of any country in the world.

The facility also houses the Duke Energy eGRID, a 15-megawatt hardware-in-the-loop grid simulator that supports education and research to speed new electrical technologies to market. The eGRID can simulate the electrical grid of any country in the world.

“Whether it’s something as simple as determining what happens to the electrical grid when a squirrel misses a jump and hits a power line or testing how an entire city would deal with a cyber attack on its electrical grid, we’re able to test just about any real-world scenario you can think of here,” said Curtiss Fox, director of operations for the Clemson eGRID.

“Basically, if it uses power we can test it,” Fox said. “Our goal is to help figure out ways to make these products, and in a larger sense, the world’s energy consumption, more efficient.”

Spread out over several different partitioned spaces, the eGRID is a nerve center of massive brilliant yellow power coils, cables of every color in the rainbow and floor-to-ceiling stainless steel power stacks, each adorned with – what else? – a giant orange tiger paw.

“It really is just a thing of beauty,” said Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, CURI’s executive director of Corporate Development and Community Affairs. “People don’t realize just what amazing things are going on here until they visit. Then they’re just blown away.”

Collins said it is important to note that what’s happening in the SCE&G Energy Innovation Center is integrated into the growing academic programs in Charleston.

“The facility is a magnet for attracting high-quality faculty who’s research is at the cutting edge,” he said. “Students benefit not only from these faculty but also by working on R&D projects with our research engineers and scientists on real-world problems at full-scale in the center. This tight integration of the academic programs and the activities at the EIC are what differentiates Clemson’s programs from other schools.”