Recently, Google announced its plans to open its 14th data center – this new one in Northern Alabama. The internet giant will be building the data center on the site of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA’s) Widows Creek coal plant, which is set to retire . Google will begin construction in 2016 and is working with TVA to ensure that the data center is powered by renewable energy resources. The data center will take advantage of the existing transmission lines at the plant to bring in renewable energy.
Google is working with TVA to scout new renewable energy projects over the next 12 months and bring those onto TVA’s electrical grid. In addition to being powered by clean energy, Google will incorporate advanced efficiency technologies, allowing the company to get 3.5 times the computing power out of the same amount of energy.
Google has a history of repurposing industrial sites, like its rehabilitated paper mill data center in Finland. In Alabama, Google’s choice to house the data center on the site of an old coal plant and power it with renewable energy is both ironic and inspirational. The coal plant site offers preexisting power lines and will also have plenty of access to water, which Google needs to cool its computers. Additionally, Google may be able to access buried conduits along existing rail lines, that once fed coal into the plant, to run fiber-optic cables from the data center.
After the end of TVA’s 2011 Integrated Resource Planning process, which SACE was engaged in as part of the IRP stakeholder working group, TVA acknowledged its ability to retire significant amounts of coal capacity while maintaining reliability. Soon after, TVA was required to close 6 units of the Widows Creek coal plant as part of 2011 consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental advocates. Widows Creek Units 7 and 8, although not required to close under the consent decree, were also approved for retirement at two separate TVA Board meetings. TVA President and CEO, Bill Johnson, applauded Google for choosing Northern Alabama as the home for its next data center and highlighted the benefits of repurposing the coal plant into a significant economic development opportunity.
Officials in Alabama and at TVA stayed quiet about Google’s possible expansion, creating a random code name for the endeavor – Project Zebra – and this is one zebra that is changing it’s stripes! Jackson County Economic Development Authority officials were even sworn to secrecy under a non-disclosure agreement. The project is the first recruited under Alabama’s 2012 specialized data center incentives and this year’s Alabama Jobs Act, an overhaul of state’s economic development incentives platform. Once completed, Google will offer community grants to support science and technology education, carbon reduction and access to the Internet.
Although it remains unclear if existing coal ash contamination at the site will be remediated before Google begins construction, it is undeniable that the future of the Widows Creek site will be far cleaner than its past. In a state that is currently ranked 13th in the nation for coal production, Google will be paving the way and demonstrating one very creative way to move the state away from coal and towards a clean energy economy and future.