Delaware data center fight powers on [video]

 (Rendering provided by The Data Centers, LLC)

(Rendering provided by The Data Centers, LLC)

The Data Centers, LLC hopes to start demolition on a 43-acre brownfield on the University of Delaware’s Science Technology and Advanced Research campus this month.

The city of Newark issued a demolition permit at the end of March, the first step in TDC‘s construction of a first-of-its-kind, stand-alone data center in the country.

“We’ve gone into what’s called an islanded [sic] mode,” Executive Vice President of Sales, Brian Honish said. “We’re gonna be creating our own power from our natural gas turbines, then our steam turbines, our steam chillers — we’ll be using all that by ourselves to support ourselves. 

Instead of relying on fluctuating power from a traditional power company, Honish says the data center will eliminate the variable swings in power by building a 279 megawatt combined heat and power plant, or CHP, on site.

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Power struggle

However, the natural gas-fired power plant is at the center of a campaign against the project.

“Very few people in the community are concerned about the data center as an idea. It’s their desire to attach a 279 megawatt natural gas-fired power plant to it that is the problem,” said Amy Roe, a member of Newark Residents Against the Power Plant, or NRAPP.

The former Newark mayoral candidate says building a power plant on the STAR campus violates local zoning.

The city of Newark approved the zoning back in January, on the condition that the CHP serve in a secondary or accessory role.

Roe disputes the CHP is an accessory saying it will generate more power than the data center actually needs; extra power that TDC admits it will sell back to the grid when it can. However, TDC maintains the extra reserve power will largely power the data center’s double fail safes.

NRAPP appealed the city’s zoning before Newark’s Board of Adjustment last month, but the board upheld the ruling allowing the project to move forward.

Roe says NRAPP is considering next steps, which could include appealing the board’s decision in Delaware Superior Court. However, in an email Roe wrote, “No action can be taken until the written order is issued by the board,” and that has not happened yet.

Two sides to the story

Along with questions about zoning, NRAPP is concerned about air quality, noise pollution, even visual pollution, with cooling towers proposed on site.

Delaware’s Dept. of Natural Resources determines the height of the towers, but Honish estimates the towers will stand about 120 feet high.

“If they didn’t have to build a power plant, we could go back to our normal lives,” Roe said, who despite the initial zoning setback said she’s not discouraged. “This is a process and we are in it for the long haul.”

In response to critics who are fine with the data center, but oppose the power plant on environmental grounds, Honish said, “If you really care about the environment, we’re using better technology than if you were buying it from the grid today.” He added, “So we’re actually doing something more for the environment than just buying it from the grid.”

Honish says building a CHP also eliminates the need for caustic lead acid batteries and diesel generators the data center would need to back up the facility.

TDC says it already has several letters of intent from Fortune 500 companies who want to do business with them. The data center is expected to bring with it almost 5,000 construction jobs and 290 high-tech, high-paying full-time jobs.WHYY-TV will feature a story about The Data Centers’ project and the controversy surrounding it on First, Friday night at 5:30 p.m. and 11 p.m.

This story was originally published on April 4, 2014.

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