Rendering courtesy of Clemson University Restoration Institute
The North Charleston, S.C., drivetrain test center features 7.5-MW and 15-MW test bays that can mimic 20 years of field conditions over a roughly six-month period.

A Clemson University wind-energy testing and research center built to accommodate the world's largest drivetrains is poised to deliver an increased amount of data about wind-turbine designs and their impacts on the electrical grid. Designed to drive technological innovations and featuring a unique set of capabilities, the North Charleston, S.C., facility has attracted a range of researchers—and investments—from private industry and large utilities.

"The mission is to work with private industry to accelerate the development and deployment of new technologies into the electrical market, to reduce the cost of energy delivered and to improve the efficiency and reliability of the electrical grid," says Dr. Nikolaos Rigas, a senior scientist with Clemson and director of the wind-turbine drivetrain testing facility.

Prompted by the U.S. Dept. of Energy, the Clemson University Restoration Institute (CURI) revamped its original plans for a facility dedicated to mechanical testing of wind-turbine drivetrains to include electrical testing. However, it was the addition of a grid simulator "that brought the large utilities to the table" and piqued heightened interest from other energy groups, says Rigas. Inclusion of the grid simulator is attributed to Curtiss Fox, who was a Clemson graduate student at the time he proposed the idea.

"It has opened up many doors outside of the wind market," Rigas says, adding that manufacturers of equipment for the solar and energy storage markets can use the center to evaluate their devices' impact on the electrical grid. Also, the grid simulator can mimic wide-area power disruptions as well as fault conditions in a variety of locations.

To date, Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy and South Carolina utilities SCANA and Santee Cooper have signed up as research partners. The center was dedicated as the SCE&G Energy Innovation Center, on behalf of the SCANA subsidiary's $3.5-million donation.

The facility's primary research focus will surround new drivetrain equipment. Two test bays that can accommodate drivetrains with capacities of up to 7.5 MW and 15 MW, respectively, will deliver the equivalent of a 20-year service-life load to the units within a period of roughly six months. That's a more efficient approach compared to the field testing that manufacturers previously used for their wind products, say project officials. The accelerated testing should impact wind-turbine development, says James Tuten, CURI's project manager.

"It provides assurance to the capital markets that, before they commission a 100-turbine wind farm, that those turbines are going to perform well because they have been tested in a more rigorous environment over a full range of parameters of operation," he says. GE Power & Water is the first company to use the drivetrain testing facility.

Due to, in part, its ability to recycle the electricity produced by the drivetrain testing—thus avoiding grid impacts—Clemson became the world's first test site capable of evaluating the 60-Hz equipment intended for the North American market and the 50-Hz units designed for global markets.

"This is a platform to test new devices under replicated grid conditions, from anywhere in the world, to understand how these devices respond to the grid and the grid to these devices," says Rigas.

Built at a cost of roughly $113 million, the project included a $47-million DOE stimulus grant. At a grand-opening ceremony held last November, DOE Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman commented, "Developing America's vast renewable energy resources is an important part of the Energy Department's all-of-the-above strategy to pave the way to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future."

According to the Global Wind Energy Council, global cumulative installed wind capacity stood at roughly 322 gigawatts at the end of 2013. The group's most recent forecasts estimate installed capacity reaching roughly 536 GW by the end of 2017.

Commissioning of the 7.5-MW test bay began last month; commissioning of the 15-MW unit will begin this summer.