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Tina Casey headshot

Offshore Wind Giant Vestas Aims to Catapult U.S. Into Global Renewables Leadership

By Tina Casey

South Carolina seems an unlikely spot for the global offshore wind industry to gain a showcase foothold in the U.S. After all, the state is among several Atlantic coast states that have been dragging their feet on offshore wind development. However, South Carolina's Clemson University happens to be the home of a self-described state-of-the-art wind turbine test bed, and Vestas has just announced that its V164-9.5 MW offshore wind turbine will get a test run there.

Despite its long coastlines, the U.S. has been lagging behind other nations when it comes to offshore wind development. However, the sleeping giant is beginning to awake, and Vestas is already claiming that its turbine will nail down the business for major U.S. offshore wind development projects to come.

Vestas keen on U.S. wind market

The new Vestas wind announcement is a big one. It's not just a one-off run through the test bed. The company is devoting $35 million to the test program overall, with up to $23 million going to Clemson over a five-year period.

A joint press release with Clemson University lays out the mission:

The testing allows MHI Vestas to gain a better understanding of how the 9.5 MW gearbox and bearings will react over the course of a 20+ year lifecycle. Through the utilization of big data from the test results, MHI Vestas can optimize the service strategy for the turbine to ensure optimum reliability and minimize the fatigue on components.

Considering the global leadership position of Vestas, the new program also makes the U.S. -- and South Carolina -- into an instant global hotspot for wind energy development:
The deal with Clemson University marks MHI Vestas Offshore Wind’s first major investment in the United States, catapulting the U.S. into a leadership position in offshore wind as the country will now be testing the world’s most powerful wind turbine. It is anticipated that visitors from around the world will come to Clemson to see the test setup.

The new partnership with Vestas all but guarantees that South Carolina -- and the U.S. -- will also be a global centerpiece of cutting edge wind energy research:
“Clemson’s facilities are second-to-none and will enable MHI Vestas to accelerate their technology to the market and usher in a new source of renewable energy vital to our energy future,” said Randy Collins, the university’s associate vice president in Charleston. “Not only will this work advance wind turbine technology, it will propagate over into the education of our students and advancement of scientific knowledge. It is a true win-win for our respective institutions.”

Adding even more luster to South Carolina's new green sheen, last year Vestas joined a public-private collaboration with the U.S. Energy Department and other leading wind turbine manufacturers, aimed at developing a mammoth, cutting edge 50-megawatt turbine.

Vestas also recently stepped up its activism on behalf of clean energy by signing on to The Climate Group and the RE100 Campaign:

“Vestas is already using 100% renewable electricity across its own operations to create wind power infrastructure,” says Sam Kimmins, Head of RE100, The Climate Group. “Now the company is furthering that leadership by joining RE100, and calling for important policy changes that will enable more companies to plug into renewables too.”

Irony alert: anti-wind state provides the key to major U.S. offshore wind development

For those of you new to the offshore wind topic, a brief recap is in order. Despite certain technical obstacles, the strong, steady winds of the open ocean are idea for wind farm development. The U.S. is sitting on a veritable gold mine of offshore wind on the Atlantic coast, where the Continental Shelf has created wide swaths of relatively shallow water.

In 2010, the Obama administration laid the groundwork for streamlining Atlantic wind development by organizing the state-level Atlantic Coast Offshore Wind Energy Consortium. Ideally all coastal states would have signed on, but several -- concentrated mainly in the south -- opted to sit out.

South Carolina was among the group that refused to sign on, though it agreed to engage with the plan as an observer.

The state's refusal may have been more political window-dressing than a determined attempt to forestall offshore wind development. Local stakeholders are well aware that the South Carolina coast is ripe for development, and in 2008 the state legislature voiced its commitment to offshore development.

In addition, under the 2009 Recovery Act, South Carolina's Clemson University won $45 million in federal funding to construct and operate a mammoth wind turbine test bed, to be shared across the industry.

To put the award in context, it was the Department of Energy's single largest grant for wind power. Here's the rundown from Clemson:

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.

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.

Nevertheless, political window dressing can be a force all its own. The $45 million nudge from the Energy Department failed to convince former Governor Nikki Haley (now the Trump administration's ambassador to the UN) and other policy makers to push South Carolina into the vanguard. That honor went to tiny Rhode Island, which recently laid claim to the title of  first ever offshore wind farm in the U.S. The states of New York and Virginia are close on its heels.

Like Haley, current South Carolina Henry McMaster is an ally of President Trump, and Trump is no fan of wind energy. So, although the Clemson test bed is a powerful enabler of future wind energy development in the US, it looks like other Atlantic coast states will reap the benefits before South Carolina gets around to it.

Photo: via Vestas.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey