Data Centers Move to Southeast Driven by Access to Cheap, Dirty Energy

Guest Blog | May 5, 2011 | Energy Policy

Sometime this summer, Apple will open the doors on a 500,000 square foot data center in Maiden, NC. Lured to the location by a $46 million dollar tax break from the state of North Carolina, Apple’s bottom line will also benefit from some of the cheapest electricity rates in the country, which are the direct result of dirty coal-fired power plants.

Apple's data center in Maiden, NC

A recent report by Greenpeace, “How Dirty is your Data” says that the Apple data center in Maiden will consume an estimated 100 megawatts (MW) of energy, this roughly equals the electricity usage of 80,000 homes. The report also details the energy mix at the Maiden plant, “The facility’s power will be supplied by Duke Energy, with a mix of 62% coal and 32% nuclear.” Among large companies that use data centers, Apple is cited as the worst offender of dirty energy use in the report, but other well-known companies are not far behind.

Facebook and Google have also located data centers in the Southeast for the same reasons as Apple. Cheap power rates and taxpayer money pull data centers to the region, but relatively few jobs follow. Once the Maiden plant is up and running, an estimated 50 full-time employees will run the facility.

In 2007, Google built a data center in nearby Caldwell County, North Carolina and is currently expanding the data center to a total of 470,000 square feet. The energy use at that facility is estimated at between 60 to 100 MW. Also in the same vicinity, Facebook is building a 300,000 square foot data center in Forest City, NC. The estimated power use will be 40 MW, pulling power directly from Duke’s brand new Cliffside coal plant. Clean air and energy groups, including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, fought for years to prevent Cliffside from being built. All of these facilities pull from an energy grid in North Carolina that is among the dirtiest in the U.S., 61 percent of power comes from coal and just four percent from renewables.

Duke Energy also played a key role in luring Apple to North Carolina. In a report issued by Duke, Clark Gillespy, vice president of Economic Development, Business Development and Territorial Strategies for Duke Energy Carolinas is quoted as saying, “Power cost and reliability are a data center’s primary concerns. We were able to convince Apple that we were capable of providing the low cost and reliability they needed for their operation.” Whether concerns over water and air quality were discussed is unclear.

Data centers account for three percent of all electricity used in the U.S. each year and that demand is growing at close to ten percent a year. This report by Greenpeace outlines how data centers consume energy and highlights the need for companies to invest in efficiency and, ultimately, in renewable installations. High-tech companies that rely on innovation for success in their own industry also need to pursue a clean energy future to power our thirst for virtual information. Instead of chasing cheap, dirty energy, technology leaders like Google, Apple, and Facebook should use their influence and power to help drive the cutting-edge future of power generation and bring their innovative ideas to the energy industry.

Google seems the most interested in pursuing these goals. They recently announced they will buy 100.8 MW of wind energy in Oklahoma from NextEra Energy Resources, the largest wind developer in the U.S. This is an especially important precedent because Google will open a data center in that state next year. While not directly tied to data centers, last month Google announced an investment of $100 million in an Oregon wind farm, which will be the world’s largest wind project, as well as $168 million for a 370 MW solar project in the Mojave Desert in California. In total Google has committed $350 million to clean energy projects.

These kinds of investments will benefit not just Google’s bottom line, but will help drive the renewables market forward. If tech companies continue to operate and build in the Southeast, their support of smart energy investments can help turn the tide towards clean energy and prevent further degradation of air, water, and mountaintops in the Southeast.

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