Data Center Power Plant Prompts Protests

As a growing number of data center projects contemplate on-site energy generation, a controversy in Delaware illustrates the potential risks of this strategy. The Data Centers LLC (TDC) has proposed a large data center in Newark, Delaware that would include up to 248 megawatts of on-site generation.

The project has spurred intense local controversy, culminating in a public meeting this month in which 700 residents turned out to listen to an appeal of the project’s approval. Why the fuss? While data center developments haven’t traditionally been a magnet for NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) concerns, power plants are another matter.

A community group calling itself Newark Residents Against the Power Plant (NRAPP) organized to oppose the project, and has used a web site, Facebook page and email lists to organize opposition. The campaign has included t-shirts, yard signs, benefit concerts and Internet “meme” graphics to build opposition to the project.

CHP Plant Draws Fire

The residents’ beef isn’t with the idea of servers living next door. It’s the power plant component of the project that has drawn criticism and sown trust issues in the community. The protesters argue that the power plant is too close to homes and schools, potentially decreases the value of nearby homes, might cause health problems due to emissions, and might generate excessive noise.

The TDC project features combined heat and power (CHP), an approach that consists of natural gas turbines, steam turbines and gas engines, with two independent natural gas supply lines on site to provide the reliability to deliver uninterrupted, fault tolerant power to the data center. Most of the steam produced by the turbines will be reused to support the cooling systems in the data center.

The deadlocked Newark board on March 19 upheld the city’s decision to permit the project. This followed a three hour hearing, as the Board of Adjustment deliberated for more than 70 minutes. Members voted 3-1 that the on-site generation would not impair the neighborhood, but the vote was split on two other issues: whether on-site generation is customary to the data center industry, and whether the project would contradict Newark’s future land-use plan. The fifth, tie-breaking member had to recuse himself due to a conflict of interest.

Primary or Backup?

While on-site generation has been included in a number of new data centers, the disagreements revolve around whether it’s common for data centers to forgo a utility connection for primary or backup power. The Data Centers argues that the difference is not significant.

“Every data center has power generation equipment of one form or another,” said Richard Forsten of Saul Ewing, the attorney representing TDC at the hearing. “Once you concede that it’s customary, it really doesn’t matter whether its for primary or backup power.”

The lesson here might be to not build on-site generation near residential housing. Data centers have traditionally been seen as good for the local economy, but the on-site power is drawing all the criticism.

The economic arguments for the data center are that it could employ upwards of 600 people and generate $10 million in property taxes. A portion of the power generated at the plant would be sold on the wholesale market as well. However, those employment numbers are being questioned by the community, as data center PR has inflated employment numbers in the past.

Definitions in Focus

The legal arguments raised revolve mainly around definitions (as legal arguments tend to do). This includes: a facility with a capacity of 279 megawatts does not meet the definition of “accessory use” under city code, in part because power plants operating independent of the electric grid are not typical in the data center industry, and because the plant would not be subordinate or incidental to the data center.

The debate is getting heated. When Data Center Knowledge initially reported the story, a few residents sounded off in the comments. During an initial information session in September, over 200 questions (PDF Download) were submitted, and TDC posted answers to the company website.

There are also supporters of the project, and there was some applause when the company pledged to hire veterans and use union workers during construction. However, the protestations of the local community are in the spotlight. The project continues to move forward, but has been slowed by the legal challenges.

Videos of the entire three-hour hearing are available on YouTube. Here’s a look at an illustration of the planned complex:


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About the Author

Jason Verge is an Editor/Industry Analyst on the Data Center Knowledge team with a strong background in the data center and Web hosting industries. In the past he’s covered all things Internet Infrastructure, including cloud (IaaS, PaaS and SaaS), mass market hosting, managed hosting, enterprise IT spending trends and M&A. He writes about a range of topics at DCK, with an emphasis on cloud hosting.

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  1. Jamie Magee

    Thanks for covering this story! The board of adjustment acknowledged in the hearing that the emissions would be harmful to people in the city, however their finding that it "would not impair the neighborhood" was more of a finding that the city code's singular reference to "the neighborhood" referred only to people in the same zoning district, not homes 800 ft away in a different zoning district. They deferred to State EPA permitting for whether it would affect the health of people in those homes/schools nearby. Sadly, the state does not monitor or enforce at the neighborhood or even city level. So now, in Newark, a business near you can run their own natural gas power plant big enough to power 5 times your city, and emit the exhaust over the zoning line into your backyard. And thanks for acknowledging that there are questions around the validity of the jobs projections. Since you're in the data center industry, do you find it realistic that a data center of 24 12,000 sq foot pods (3 to 7 MW each) would employ 600 people? I did some research and found that The Data Centers LLC is projecting five to six times as many data center employees per square foot as any other published data center employment claim I could find. 50 of TDC's employees were landscapers, security guards, and janitors. I also found that their only official document claimed 290 (not 600) full time permanent jobs, including power plant positions. And they were counting 16 hr weekend shifts as full time jobs. So then, after getting no response from them via email (and their physical address "suite" is actually a UPS store mailbox), I had a reporter from the local Gannett news paper (The News Journal) contact them with my concerns. They correct the shift logic, but simply bumped up all the numbers to achieve their desired total # of jobs. There are other job projections contradictions, even in their own statements vs their official documents. Here a brief fact check: And that image you close with has been used a lot by them and the local media. However, the exhaust stacks are about 50% shorter than they should appear. Here is the rendering they submitted in their air permit application to the state EPA, showing the exhaust stacks to scale:

  2. Carol Robbins

    This company came in through the back door. Their initial meeting with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources was in 2011 and at that time, they were forewarned to engage the community with their plans. They chose not to. When the community forced them into a community meeting last fall, they made sure to contact local unions to attend so they could drum up support by promising "5,000 union jobs for veterans", to build a power plant. Local power professionals have cited that you could build a nuclear power plant and still wouldn't need 5,000 people to do it. This bunch have lied to the community, their plan to to build a power plant disguised as a data center within hundreds of yards of people's homes and schools. You bet we are going to fight this project until the end. And, oh yeh, they tried it at a few other universities under different company names - didn't happen!

  3. Margaret Cassling

    This is a project without a conscience. Health and safety of residents is not a priority for TDC or University of Delaware. Gov. Markell is squarely behind it, yet claims to be green. Jobs is a false argument. A CHP natural gas plant in NJ employs 22 people. Data Centers employ even fewer. What's the real reason behind this? Huge profits for a few investors while the rest of us choke on the exhaust from this plant.

  4. Kathleen Obarski

    Thank you for covering the controversy surrounding The Data Center's proposed power plant. One thing some of the images of the site omit is its proximity to the railroad tracks along which oil is transported. This is also the route for the Amtrak & SEPTA trains. Imagine the explosion and damage to the area if a train derailed. Long-established housing developments which are closer to the site than the "neighbor," Bloom Energy, could be devastated resulting in the loss of homes and, possibly, loss of lives. Regarding the projected number of jobs, it is interesting to note that one of the "Related Articles" on this page, "Going Off the Grid: Delaware Data Center Will Generate Its Own Power" from May 2013 cites "approximately 370 full time employees (FTE) and is expected to attract “over 90 other workers from our tenants, vendors, consultants, and our tenants’ tenants.” " According to your article, that number has escaped to "upwards of 600 people." The number just keeps growing and growing! The fifth member who had to recuse himself definitely had a conflict of interest! It is my understanding that he is on the board of UD's STAR Campus. In light of that disclosure, and knowing that any tie votes would mean that the original decision would stand, why didn't the City select a substitute for this particular hearing? To get the natural gas to the site, 21 miles of pipeline will need to be installed through residential areas and state parks. The use of non-renewable fuel, probably extracted from tracking (which presents a whole new debate), on the campus of a university that touts its green status is unconscionable. I'm not a scientist, but why hasn't TDC proposed a green alternative? By the way, what does the aforementioned Bloom Energy provide? "By generating power on-site, where it is consumed, Bloom Energy offers increased electrical reliability and improved energy security, providing a clear path to energy independence." ( From what I have read, when data centers are being proposed, the questions from the various locales all revolve around environmental, safety and health issues and concern about property values. They are being hailed by state and local governments for providing jobs and increasing the tax revenue. Yes, we need jobs, but jobs that don't jeopardize our health and environment! Meanwhile the United Nations issued its 2014 report on climate change: "Welcoming the IPCC’s findings, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the report confirms that the effects of human-caused climate change are already widespread and consequential, affecting agriculture, human health, ecosystems on land and in the oceans, water supplies, and some industries." But let's not talk about the elephant in the room...