Thursday, July 16, 2015

Amazon’s Windy Path to a Nuclear-driven Data Center

What becomes a data center most? Electricity – and lots of it.

[Mark] Mills [founder and CEO of the Digital Power Group] says the growth of information technology over the next two decades will “radically alter” the electric sector, reducing the use of electricity in many areas while consuming vast amounts itself. The big takeaway from this transformation, he says, is the paramount importance of reliable electricity supplies. […]

A few-thousand-square-foot [data center], Mills says, uses more electricity than a 100,000-square-foot shopping mall. He adds that there are tens of thousands of data centers around the country, “each consuming as much electricity as an entire town.”

Actual numbers for what data centers needs can be a little tough to pin down. But here’s a stab at it from someone who should know:

David Christian, the CEO at Dominion Generation, which operates Dominion Virginia Power’s four reactors at North Anna and Surry, agrees, noting that several new data centers have been built recently in the company’s Northern Virginia service region.

“Each of these centers can require some 40 megawatts or more of safe, dependable, high-quality electricity. Meeting that load reliably 24 hours a day, seven days a week requires a solid, diverse portfolio of electrical generation, and nuclear is an essential part of that mix,” Christian says.

We’ve noted a couple of times that big data centers – those run by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, etc. – have been migrating east generally and to the southeast specifically. And while the southern states have coal and natural gas plants, they have a lot of nuclear plants, too, with more to come in the next few years.

Recently, NEI looked at the issue of companies migrating to the southeast in search of cheaper electricity. We didn’t expect anyone we spoke to to care particularly about the generating source of electricity, just that there was a lot of it at a reasonable price. And that’s what we found.

[Jesse] Smith [of Oak Ridge National Labs] told NEI that for such enterprises the cost of electricity is paramount and TVA’s ability to produce electricity cheaply has always given the region an advantage in attracting new business. Electricity reliability is “expected to be a given,” he says. “In the case of the 3-D printing of the car, any interruption in the flow of electricity would result in them having to restart the building process all over from the beginning.”

Smith is talking about a company named Local Motors.

One of those companies is Local Motors, a Phoenix-based independent motor vehicle manufacturing company. In collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the company earlier this year built the first example of its Strati, the world’s first 3-D-printed electric car. The company is building a 44,000-square-foot micro-factory and showroom in Knoxville.

That’s impressive. Obviously, other cost factors besides electricity motivate companies to move to a state – employment, regulation, etc. – but we found that reliable, plentiful, inexpensive electricity is a big one for companies that bet their businesses on it. The line connecting that need to nuclear energy is quite bright, whether or not a company is aware of the connection or cares about it. (Oak Ridge is, of course, very aware of it and cares a lot.)

The NEI story doesn’t talk much about data centers, but, as we’ve seen, they are among the most electricity-hungry operations out there. What’s true for Local Motors is definitely true for, say, Amazon.

This story, from a data center-centric publication, discusses Amazon’s Virginia data center and how the company is also building a wind farm in North Carolina. Interestingly, though, wind likely will not provide electricity to the data center. What will? Well, we’ll come to that.

The wind or solar farms usually don’t feed the data centers directly. Instead, the company continues to buy power for the data center from the grid, but sells the renewable energy on the wholesale market while keeping the renewable energy credits and applying them to the power consumed by the data center.

And that in turn, despite appreciating the wind farm and all, annoys the easily annoyed Greenpeace no end. And you’ve got to love the reason why.

“Will the power from this North Carolina wind farm be delivered to the utilities that provide electricity to Amazon’s data centers in Virginia?” Greenpeace spokesman David Pomerantz asked in a statement. “Without an answer, AWS customers cannot be certain that the wind energy is displacing the gas, coal, and nuclear energy powering those data centers.

“More information is needed especially because Amazon’s main utility provider in Virginia, Dominion, is pursuing expansions of gas and nuclear power plants, justified by the growth of data centers like Amazon’s.”

“Cannot be certain?” How about “Does not care?”

Let’s not question Amazon’s motivation here. It’s building a big wind farm and putting it on the grid. Good. Perhaps it feels it is performing a civic duty. Fine. Still, Amazon’s data center needs a lot of electricity it can rely on. We know it can depend on Surry and North Anna to supply some of it – maybe most of it. If the goal here is to run the data center as cleanly as possible, Amazon has the right idea – one if by wind, two if by nuclear. And Greenpeace is vexed. Win-Win, however you cut it.

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