Still more questions about proposed Newark data center

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 (Rendering provided by The Data Centers, LLC)

(Rendering provided by The Data Centers, LLC)

At the end of this month, the Newark Board of Adjustment is expected to formally adopt, in writing, its decision to uphold the city’s zoning approval for a proposed data center and power plant on the University of Delaware’s STAR campus.

West Chester-based The Data Centers, LLC wants to build a state-of-the-art, stand-alone data center and combined heat and power plant, CHP, on site. The project is expected to bring with it almost 5,000 construction jobs, close to 300 full-time jobs and more tax revenue to the state of Delaware than the Chrysler assembly plant did before it.

Hundreds of Newark residents opposed to the project appealed the city’s conditional zoning approval, but they were delivered a setback when the board verbally voted in favor of the city last month. Pending the outcome of the board’s upcoming April 29th meeting, the group Newark Residents Against the Power Plant says it will determine next steps, which could include appealing the decision to Delaware Superior Court.

Bloom boxes vs. CHP

While the data center itself has plenty of support, it’s the 279-megawatt natural gas-fired CHP that is generating a lot of controversy. Air and noise pollution are chief among the concerns, particularly for Newark resident Sally Milbury-Steen. She lives just 500 feet from the proposal site.

“Not one of us who is a member of this particular neighborhood or part of the Newark citizens opposed to the power plant wants not to see a data center with jobs. We’re just concerned about the power plant part of it,” she said. “This would be a wonderful, wonderful way to use some of those “Bloom boxes” that are just manufactured close by.”

California-based Bloom Energy opened a manufacturing facility on Newark’s STAR campus in October 2013. There, employees build fuel cells, referred to as “Bloom boxes,” that convert natural gas to electricity in an environmentally-friendly way. Bloom Energy clients include Walmart, FedEx, Apple, Adobe, Google, Ebay and Delmarva Power.

Brian Honish, executive vice-president of sales for TDC, said his company looked into the idea of using Bloom boxes, instead of building a CHP, but gave two reasons why TDC decided against it.

“One was economics, [it’s] very expensive to use Bloom boxes,” he said. “And two, is the sheer mass of them. We’d need over 1200 Bloom boxes on site. The square footage needed to do that alone would be prohibitive.”

According to TDC, one Bloom box generates 200 kilowatts of electricity, requiring five boxes to equal one megawatt. For the data center’s needs, Honish says the math works out to 1,240 Bloom boxes.

Being able to conserve space was another reason why TDC decided to build a CHP on site, rather than get power from the traditional grid.

“A traditional data center model puts battery backup and generators on site… We eliminate all of the caustic lead acid batteries. If we were to put batteries on site for our facility, we’d need 12.5 acres of batteries and have to maintain those,” Honish said.

Former Newark mayoral candidate Amy Roe has been the face for NRAPP. Without knowing the dimensions of a Bloom box or its electrical output, Roe reserved comment about the answers Honish provided.

“Since the very beginning, one of our objectives has been to verify the facts that have been presented by The Data Centers, LLC and we have time and again caught them in lies. So I have very little trust at this point for what they say actually being truthful until I have the opportunity to verify that independently,” she said.

Cooling towers

Brian Honish says TDC estimates cooling stacks on the premises will stand 120 feet high. However, according to The Data Centers’ air permit application submitted to Delaware’s Dept. of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the cooling stacks are proposed to be 165 feet. For a frame of reference, the water tower on UD’s STAR campus is 150 feet.

The height discrepancy of the cooling towers has been another point of contention between TDC and NRAPP.

“Just like… when we applied for the air permit, we applied for 279 megawatts… At maximum capacity we will be producing 248 megawatts,” Honish said. “We had to put in a worst case scenario for our tower height. And based on the air dispersion model, that was 165 feet.”

DNREC ultimately determines the height of the stacks.

“I have not had an opportunity to look at the air dispersion models, those have not yet been provided by the state in a format that can be viewed,” Roe said. “The air permit application that they submitted to DNREC is their only legal record of what their stack height is going to be. And if they’re claiming to the public that their stack height is going to be different, then the entire basis upon which their air permit application is based is not factual. And you really can’t have it both ways.”

Honish added the cooling towers will be low-flow and will have caps placed on top of them.

“We have to pay for our water so we are going to try and recapture everything we possibly can to use the water again. And as a result you’re not going to see giant plumes of steam coming out,” he said.

While it’s expected that Newark’s Board of Adjustment will rubber stamp the verbal decision made last month, Amy Roe admitted anything could happen, describing the whole process as unpredictable.

TDC has Governor Jack Markell’s blessing, but it still needs an environmental permit from the state, a process that can’t begin until DNREC receives the written order from the Newark Board of Adjustment.

TDC hopes to open for business in summer 2016.

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