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Maryland eyed for data center with power plant

Maryland is in the running for a data storage center with its own sizable power plant, a project planned for the University of Delaware until officials there spiked it amid an uproar over its scale and potential effect on the community.

The Data Centers LLC said it's looking in Cecil County and elsewhere in Maryland as well as in Delaware and five other states. The company, which goes by TDC, eventually hopes to build two to three of the projects a year.

Now, though, TDC is hunting for land for its inaugural project — which has proved harder to launch than the Pennsylvania firm anticipated.

The proposed facility at the University of Delaware sparked a major battle in the 33,000-person town around the campus. Opponents objected to the 279-megawatt power plant, which the university believes would have been by far the largest of its kind in the country.

Ken Grant, a TDC spokesman, said the company considers data centers with power plants "the wave of the future." Officials there are eager to break ground on what they think will be the first data center entirely powered by a combined-heat-and-power plant, a technique that can put both natural gas and steam heat to work generating electricity.

"There's a lot of good, positive discussions happening, and we'll just have to wait and see how those play out," Grant said.

Economic development officials in Cecil County did return a call seeking comment.

Americans are voracious consumers of digital information — about 3 million data centers dot the country, storing everything from medical records to cat videos. Data centers, in turn, voraciously consume electricity.

The facilities collectively used enough last year "to power all the households in New York City twice over," according to a report last week from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The expense and pollution that come with buying power the conventional way are pushing some tech giants to try alternatives. Microsoft is experimenting with fuel cells. An Apple data center in North Carolina has what the company calls the largest privately owned on-site solar array in the country.

TDC wants to build a 900,000-square-foot data center, the equivalent of five Wal-Mart supercenters. The 279-megawatt plant would be enough to power it and then some — TDC wouldn't generally need to run the plant at full capacity, Grant said.

It's the power plant, rather than the data center, that sparked a fight in Newark, Del.

The University of Delaware agreed to lease land for the project at the site of a former Chrysler assembly plant. The university is redeveloping the property as a science, tech and research campus.

Residents leery of living near the new power plant hired a consultant, organized protests and prepared for a long legal battle, said Amy Roe, who helped found Newark Residents Against the Power Plant. The Sierra Club's Delaware chapter also opposed the plans.

The project "put our whole town through a lot of stress," Roe said.

The University of Delaware pulled the plug in July. A university work group analyzing the proposal raised concerns about the level of emissions and "scant" information provided about the plans, calling the complex "not consistent with high quality development and a first class science and technology campus."

The work group said air emissions was the one area it could meaningfully analyze because TDC applied for an emissions permit. Members of the group concluded that the plant as proposed would result in "significant generation of greenhouse gases," and they questioned whether such a large combined-heat-and-power operation would be as efficient as claimed.

Jim Black, executive director of the Partnership for Sustainability in Delaware, worked as a consultant for a labor and business group — Delaware Jobs Now — that supported the project. He said an on-site plant making use of heat that would otherwise be wasted is the most efficient option among the various ways a data center could be powered, an environmental plus.

"More and more of our power is going to be required to maintain these data centers," he said. "So we need to do it as efficiently as possible."

If TDC decides to build in Maryland, the company will need approval from the state's Public Service Commission. Several new plants — not connected with data centers — are in the works in Maryland after years with no major projects.

Grant said TDC wants to build data centers in the Mid-Atlantic because the company is confident about data demand there.

"This is where the population is," he said. "This is where the growth is happening."

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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