Quincy Generator Cluster Draws Scrutiny

An aerial view of the Microsoft data center in Quincy, Washington

Economic development officials love clusters of huge Internet data centers. But environmental officials are less enthused about large clusters of diesel generators. The town of Quincy, Washington has both, serving as home to major data centers for Microsoft, Yahoo and Intuit (with another project from Sabey Corp. on the way).  

Each of the data centers in Quincy uses banks of generators to provide backup power in the event of a utility outage. Diesel engine exhaust is a regulated pollutant, and can be toxic in high concentrations, so state regulators routinely review permits for generators. 

Using 48 Megawatts Now
Earlier this year Microsoft began construction on a second data center at its Quincy campus, and applied for permits for an addition 13 diesel generators. That’s in addition to the 24 generators currently on site to support Microsoft’s first data center, which uses 48 megawatts of power. The expansion would mean a total of 37 diesel generators, all of them 2.5 megawatt units.

The Washington State Department of Ecology has approved Microsoft’s additional permit, but has also scheduled a public hearing in Quincy on Sept. 28 to hear from residents on the topic. The Ecology department conducted an evaluation of the health risks from diesel engine exhaust particulates, and found that the Microsoft expansion, viewed in isolation, is not likely to impact public health.

State officials and Microsoft are required to appear at a public meeting to present and discuss the generator expansion. The Department of Ecology took the opportunity to seek feedback from area residents, citing the growing concentration of data centers.

“Due to the interest expressed by other data companies to expand or build in the Quincy area, Ecology was concerned that the cumulative effect of diesel engine emissions should be assessed,” the state said in announcing the meeting.

46 Generators in Quincy
Yahoo runs 13 generators at its data center in Quincy, while Intuit has an additional nine gensets, according to an analysis prepared by Gary Palcisko of the Department of Ecology.

“Under most conditions, data center air emissions are minimal,” the report notes, but adds that a “system-wide power failure could result in the simultaneous operation of dozens of large diesel engines.”

While the impact of generators has been minimal thus far, the economic impact of the Microsoft, Yahoo and Intuit projects has been considerable.

Local officials estimate that Grant and Douglas counties have collected $56.4 million in additional sales tax revenue from data center projects between 2006 and 2008. Grant County’s average wage increased 19 percent between 2006 and 2008, while property tax values in the city of Quincy increased by $504 million during that period, according to the Port of Quincy.

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. Ken B

    What's the big deal? Every construction site involves the "simultaneous operation of dozens of large diesel engines." Sounds like political grandstanding to me.

  2. Ken, totally agree. What if they agree to run biodiesel? Throw in no-trans fat oil as a kicker. What does it say about the grid infrastructure resiliency? Should Microsoft, Yahoo and Sabey be concerned and move out of state? What is the solution or are the tree hugging dirt worshippers just throwing rocks and following Greenpeace's lead in the fight against coal? Over the past 10 years what have the emissions been? Surely a study has been done based on data that is reality based vs. speculation based?

  3. Not knowing myself what all is out in that area besides data centers, could it be a wash pollution wise if there is a big power outage and the only things running in the area at the time are the data centers?

  4. Not to mention plowing and harvest season, when hundreds, if not thousands of tractors are running dawn until dusk.

  5. Rocky

    @Mark: Biodiesel does not store well, over 1-2 months, and needs to be kept warmer than petrodiesel. Some sites are having trouble with state biodiesel mandates with as little as 2% biodiesel (B2), much less B90 or B99. Biodiesel produces a different mix of pollutants than petrodiesel; depending on your area's air quality problems, biodiesel could make things worse. Some sites use backup generators for primary power when the electric utility calls for load shedding. The data center operator gets much cheaper power, but run generators far more hours. Some air quality management districts scrutinize these situations very carefully. Natural gas generators and turbines have much lower emissions than diesel, but they have engineering challenges providing backup power for data centers. Ironically, our local air quality management district is happy with diesel generators, but won't approve natural gas generators, apparently because they've never done one before. Go figure! Air pollution control is a heavily politicized process. Do not expect rationality to prevail.

  6. Bob

    Testing gensets on a regular basis also contributes concentrated pollutants, yet this could be mitigated by intelligent scheduling and coordination between operators. Individual unit testing (load banks) could also reduce concentrations. The amount and kind of load testing depends on each operators' requirement to meet their standards of availability. Those with closed transition switchgear could test by loading back into the grid. Seems like some thought needs to go into planning, scheduling and coordinating. I'm sure smart operators would be willing to join together in order to help keep regulation from stepping in?

  7. David

    What about the BNSF railway which passes through Quincy (and which borders the south property line of Microsoft's datacenter)? An average of 27 trains a day pass by there; headed by 2, 3, or 4 locomotives, each equipped with 3500+ horsepower diesels. Judging by the appearance of their exhaust plumes, they're a much greater menace to the environment than the pampered machines inside the typical datacenter...

  8. Steve Walton

    That roof looks like the perfect spot for a solar farm...maybe they could run diesel scrubbers with the power it would generate...