A crowd of about 500 looked on as officials inside a warehouse at the old Charleston Naval Base dug into orange-dyed dirt as the university fight song played.
Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic U.S. Rep. James Clyburn joined Clemson University President James Barker and other officials for the event.
"South Carolina can combine the strengths of its top-ranked research university with its manufacturing sector to catapult the state into a leading role in the nation's emerging and important wind-power industry," Barker told the gathering.
The work begins with renovating an old Naval base warehouse into the wind turbine research facility. Last year, the federal Energy Department gave Clemson $45 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The state and private donors provided another $53 million.
The center at the Clemson Restoration Institute is expected to begin operating in 2012. It will test drive trains that take the energy generated by a wind turbine's blades and drive electrical generators.
John Kelly, a Clemson vice president and executive director of the Restoration Institute, said the state is positioned to become an industrial hub for the growing wind energy industry.
"It's difficult to overstate what this facility represents for South Carolina," Kelly said. "From an economic development standpoint, the testing facility will bring statewide benefits."
While the center will employ about 20 people to begin, officials estimated last year that the center will lead to more local jobs.
The Energy Department has estimated that the wind industry in South Carolina could eventually provide anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 jobs.
The university's partners in the project include the Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority as well as the state Department of Commerce.
Others include South Carolina Public Railways, the South Carolina State Ports Authority and private partners including RENK AG, Tony Bakker and James Meadors.