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Data Center Power Plant Prompts Protests

The Data Centers LLC has plans for a $1 billion dollar data center project that included its own on-site generation. About 700 residents, many of whom are not happy, showed up to a hearing on the project.

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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