Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Design Team Pictures the Future of Nuclear Energy

For more than 100 years, the shape and location of human settlements has been defined in large part by energy and water. Cities grew up near natural resources like hydropower, and near water for agricultural, industrial and household use.

So what would the world look like with a new generation of small nuclear reactors that could provide abundant, clean energy for electricity, water pumping and desalination and industrial processes?

Hard to say with precision, but Third Way, the non-partisan think tank, asked the design team at the Washington, D.C. office of Gensler & Associates, an architecture and interior design firm that specializes in sustainable projects like a complex that houses the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. The talented designers saw a blooming desert and a cozy arctic village, an old urban mill re-purposed as an energy producer, a data center that integrates solar panels on its sprawling flat roofs, a naval base and a humming transit hub.

In the converted mill, high temperat…

Seeing the Light on Nuclear Energy

If you think that there is plenty of electricity, that the air is clean enough and that nuclear power is a just one among many options for meeting human needs, then you are probably over-focused on the United States or Western Europe. Even then, you’d be wrong.

That’s the idea at the heart of a new book, “Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century,” by Scott L. Montgomery, a geoscientist and energy expert, and Thomas Graham Jr., a retired ambassador and arms control expert.


Billions of people live in energy poverty, they write, and even those who don’t, those who live in places where there is always an electric outlet or a light switch handy, we need to unmake the last 200 years of energy history, and move to non-carbon sources. Energy is integral to our lives but the authors cite a World Health Organization estimate that more than 6.5 million people die each year from air pollution.  In addition, they say, the global climate is heading for ruinous instability. E…

Sneak Peek

There's an invisible force powering and propelling our way of life.
It's all around us. You can't feel it. Smell it. Or taste it.
But it's there all the same. And if you look close enough, you can see all the amazing and wondrous things it does.
It not only powers our cities and towns.
And all the high-tech things we love.
It gives us the power to invent.
To explore.
To discover.
To create advanced technologies.
This invisible force creates jobs out of thin air.
It adds billions to our economy.
It's on even when we're not.
And stays on no matter what Mother Nature throws at it.
This invisible force takes us to the outer reaches of outer space.
And to the very depths of our oceans.
It brings us together. And it makes us better.
And most importantly, it has the power to do all this in our lifetime while barely leaving a trace.
Some people might say it's kind of unbelievable.
They wonder, what is this new power that does all these extraordinary things?