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A steady breeze of change is blowing in North Charleston, where Clemson University’s Restoration Institute will soon begin constructing a large-scale wind turbine testing facility. Officials expect the project to create thousands of jobs through the development of a wind energy industrial cluster, making South Carolina one of the keys for launching the future of wind energy.

“As the wind energy market emerges along the East Coast and turbines continue to grow in size and weight, South Carolina is strategically positioned to serve as an industrial hub for this evolving industry,” John Kelly, CU vice president and executive director of CURI, says.

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded a $45 million grant to CURI, which when combined with $53 million of matching funds from private and state investment, will help build the turbine drive-train testing facility. In a nutshell, a drive train takes the energy generated by a turbine’s blades and increases the rotational speed as it drives an electrical generator, similar to the transmission in a car.

Construction of the facility will begin in 2010, and CURI hopes to open its new shop in 2012. CURI estimates the facility will create 110 temporary construction jobs and will bring 21 full-time positions to the area once it is operational. As many as 20,000 new jobs could be created in South Carolina during the next 20 years as the wind industry grows, according to DOE.

Danny Rowland, co-owner of CMMC LLC, a private fabrication and manufacturing company located in North Charleston, says the testing facility could bring his company’s manufacturing and marine-related facilities to their full potential.

“The drive train facility is an economic dream come true for the Charleston region, and we look forward with great anticipation to the growth of employment and training this program will surely create,” Rowland says. The company expects jobs to increase at several times their current levels.

The testing site will be constructed out of an existing former U.S. Navy warehouse, which has rail and ship-handling infrastructure nearby — an ideal site because transporting large turbines over roads can be a logistical headache. The site could also help South Carolina take full advantage of the strong winds in the shallow waters just off its coast, which are great for the development of offshore wind farms.

The energy from the winds that blow within miles of South Carolina’s coast have the potential to power more than 1 million homes across the state, according to Nick Rigas, director of renewable energy at CURI. The growing coastal population there will strain existing resources, he says, so harvesting alternative energy will be crucial for the state’s success.

This isn’t the first time the business model for the facility has worked. It will be patterned after Clemson’s existing International Center for Automotive Research, a campus in Greenville where students research and develop new technologies for vehicles. The center has created more than 500 jobs and educated hundreds of graduate students in automotive engineering.

 “I think the wind project is going to be a phenomenal magnet because no other facility in the world will test in this magnitude for wind turbines,” Imtiaz Haque, executive director of ICAR, says. “This concept is even larger in terms of its ability to draw industry.”

The U.S. Department of Energy states that 20 percent of U.S. power must be met by non-fossil fuel sources by 2030, which will require technology advancements in the development of offshore wind harvesting. CURI was established in 2004 to drive economic growth by creating, developing and fostering sustainable technologies in South Carolina.