The Future Is Here: Google Is Turning An Old Coal Plant Into A Clean Energy-Powered Data Center

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An old coal-burning power plant slated to close in October has been given new life thanks to Google, which recently announced plans to build its first U.S.-based data center in eight years on the grounds of Alabama’s Widows Creek power plant.

“Data centers need a lot of infrastructure to run 24/7, and there’s a lot of potential in redeveloping large industrial sites like former coal power plants,” Patrick Gammons, senior manager of Google’s Data Center Energy and Location Strategy, wrote in a blog post. “Decades of investment shouldn’t go to waste just because a site has closed; we can repurpose existing electric and other infrastructure to make sure our data centers are reliably serving our users around the world.”

Google currently operates — or has plans to construct — 14 data centers around the world, with eight in North America, two in Asia, and four in Europe. Data centers are where Google houses the huge network of servers and fiber-optic cables necessary to power its online operations. Gammons called the data centers “the engines of the Internet” — and those engines require energy to run.

Which is where the Widows Creek plant comes in. The power plant, which first started producing power in 1952, once employed more than 500 workers and was one of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) largest power plants, according to the Times Free Press. Today, just one of its original eight generators is still in operation, employing about 90 people. The plant was slated to close completely in October, with the TVA citing a “changing regulatory and economic environment.” The last remaining generator currently creates enough power to supply around 200,000 homes, according to the TVA website.

The data center will eschew the power plant’s history in favor of renewable energy, with Google pledging to run the 350-acre facility entirely off of either solar or wind power (or a combination of both). Google’s data centers in both Iowa and Oklahoma already run entirely off of wind power.

The $600 million project will use the plant’s preexisting electric transmission lines to power the center. Google also announced that it will be working with the TVA to create new renewable energy projects around the area. The company expects that the center will create between 75 and 100 jobs.

This is the first time Google has committed to redeveloping a former power plant, but not the first time it has converted an industrial site. In 2009, Google purchased a paper mill in Finland and spent almost $400 million converting it into a data center. The system is now one of the company’s most efficient, using sea water from the Bay of Finland to cool its equipment. While there are no final plans yet, the Widows Creek plant is located on a river, and Google might look into creating a similar cooling system as it did in Finland.

Construction of the data center is slated to begin in 2016. Google currently uses renewable energy to power 35 percent of its operations, but says that it is “striving to power our company with 100 percent renewable energy.” To make renewable energy more widely available — both for the company and around the world — Google has agreed to fund $2 billion in clean energy projects, from residential rooftop solar to wind farms in Texas.