Neighbors to university datacenter — NIMBY!

Neighbors to university datacenter — NIMBY!

Summary: Plans for a new datacenter facility at the University of Delaware face stiff grassroots opposition.

TOPICS: Data Centers

In a world where we see communities and entire states rushing to provide all sorts of incentives to get companies to build datacenters in their bailiwick, residents of Newark, Delaware have raised significant opposition to the University of Delaware and The Data Centers, LLC reclaiming 43 acres of urban industrial landscape to build a datacenter and power generation facility.


In a plan to spend over a billion dollars on the new facility on the school's Science Technology and Advanced Research campus, we are seeing the usual rhetoric about how many jobs the construction project will bring, along with the unquantifiable "attract additional businesses to the area" mantra that gets spread about whenever concessions are being made to datacenter providers.

But unlike opposition found to most datacenter projects, this time it's coming from the grassroots level and is against not the datacenter portion of the project but the plan to build a 279-megawatt, natural gas fired power plant adjacent to the datacenter. 

But local residents have got a serious case for “not in my backyard” feelings, as the power plant, with its 120-foot-tall cooling towers, will literally be in their back yards. Newark actually changed the zoning for the area back in January, with the codicil that the power plant would only be a secondary purpose for the site, but residents are pointing out that the plan to sell power back to the grid makes it a primary consideration.

But the local opponents of the facility, who agree that the issue is the power plant, not the datacenter, are being assaulted on all sides now.

Local businesses have bought into the potential increase in revenue from the project, out-of-state unions have been going door to door leaving information about the benefits of the project, and their presentation in the media, which often had a David versus Goliath tone, has moved more to Luddites opposing the advancement of technology.

Given that the site of the facility has, at one time, been the home to a Chrysler production line, the local concerns about potential pollution — air and noise — seems somewhat ironic. But the neighbors have been actively opposing the plan.

One commentator pointed out that an existing facility in the same area, Bloom Energy, produced widely touted, environmentally correct fuel cells for datacenter use and asked why this technology wasn’t the first choice for the datacenter opening on the same business campus. As yet, this question has gone unanswered.

See also:

Topic: Data Centers

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  • What's a "natura gas-ovide"?

    "plan to build a 279 megawatt, natural gas-ovide all of the power for the datacenter"

    Is that a hybrid, or something?
  • "Jobs" huh?

    It is simply amazing this mantra is still used to justify any imaginable business excess. Surely the people know better by now, having been taken advantage of so often. But I suppose politicians are still deluded that we're all stupid and that mantra gives them cover as they cave in to monied interests time after time.

    Our problem is a corrupt and morally bankrupt court system upholding that "corporations are people" but shielded from prosecution, "money is speech," and so much other nonsense.
  • You get what you pay for

    And industry (but yes, I realize this is a public university) is paying for many decades of a "bottom line first, to hell with the neighbors" mentality. The University has a hard sell to make, but it should try anyway (make the NIMBYs work for their position). What they'll probably need, though, is an independent assessment of the likely pollution levels from the proposed power plant, a plan for where the new businesses will actually go, and some sort of assessment of the impact on automobile traffic and how to mitigate it (a lot of these east coast towns have narrow streets).

    It's a hard job, but someone has to do it. I think the key in the future, however, will be in selling these sorts of projects to the neighbors first and anticipating their likely objections, instead of treating them as an afterthought. NIMBYism can be frustrating, but people should remember that if something goes wrong, the neighbors are the first to be affected.
    John L. Ries
    • Forgot...

      ...there is also the concern about where all the new people moving in are going to live. In short, there needs to be careful planning and the locals have to have confidence in the plans made (if they think their politicians are bought, it's going to be hard to get them to accept anything).

      Churchill's crack about democracy being the worst conceivable form of government, except for all the others seems appropriate here. The objections of the Republica non Democracia fraternity are noted with the response that I'm not using the term "democracy" in the same way they do (those believing in absolute democracy can speak up now; I don't think there are very many of you).
      John L. Ries
    • First Blush

      The key is to compare the output of the power plant with the peak usage of the data center and what percent of the time peak usage occurs.

      If it's a lot more power than needed, then the data center is the Trojan Horse and the real question is who is expected to purchase the excess, and who benefits from that increased regional capacity.

      I don't mind losing the political game as long as everyone knows what cards are being played and to what wager.
      • Missing the point

        I think people are missing the point. Regardless of where the power source is, lot of electricity is required to power that facility. Any electricity BOUGHT from the market at one point in time converted an energy source to electricity - uranium/plutonium/gas/coal/wind/hyrdo/solar etc. With gas in particular, ~80% of the energy converted is lost in the form of excess steam, with only ~20% generating electricity for market. By building a power plant adjacent to a large facility, the excess steam (the ~80%) can be used to heat the facility, dramatically increasing the overall energy efficiencies in the system. The environmental impact is actually less overall, cheaper to operate (converting gas is cheaper than buying electricity from market), helps secure power supply consistency and cost, and excess power can provide additional revenue by selling to the grid.
        • Actually, YOU are the one missing a lot of context

          Your general thinking makes sense in theory, and I used to think the same about this very project: It reduces power generation that would be needed at the existing plants. However, I have since researched it and found I was wrong for two reasons.

          1) They are generating more than needed...
          This proposed power plant is the only source of power TDC is willing to use, even for backup. So they also have to generate their own 65MW of backup power spinning at all times, since they don't have the scalability of the dynamic grid. And on top of all that, they are going to generate another 30% to 50% (capped at 71MW) to sell to the grid for profit "to make the project financially viable". All of this totals FIVE times the amount of power needed by the entire University and City. Yet all the associated pollution will be emitted 800 feet from homes and schools.

          2) The proposed plant is dirtier than the grid...
          The grid in DE is 34% nuclear powered and is constantly phasing out coal in favor of wind and other renewables. Meanwhile, 10/20/40 years from now, TDC will still be 100% fossil fuel burning.
          • Heat

            What people get confused about is that cogeneration is actually about completely using the entire energy conversion process to its fullest potential. The main reason why gas electricity is "dirty" has to do with the 80% lost to excess steam when generating electricity (20% efficiency). Here, they are flipping it around. The gas becomes at least 80% efficient if exclusively used for heat, with the additional 20% converted to useable energy. Since they already have to heat the facility, normally by way of gas, they capitalize on that by developing a system that generates electricity with marginal increases in gas consumption. You can't look at "gas electricity" versus "nuclear electricity" in your context because the "waste" attributed to normal gas plants is actually used, and therefore many times cleaner than conventional gas electricity. That said, yes solar and wind is cleaner, but you can't heat a building with it in any sort of economically feasible way, nor is it a stable source of energy.

            The other key element is stable reliable power. Which for a data centre would make sense.

            Visit a large hospital or university, or some sort of large business campus - you'll be surprised to find out that they might generate their own heat and electricity, AND are located right in places near tons of people, and you can't even tell! Pollution is a byproduct of heating your own home, I'm not sure why heating this complex would be any different. Except here they can generate power as well, to a client that will always buy their power - themselves.
          • some corrections to your misunderstandings

            Actually, yes, you can compare cleanliness of gas vs nuclear because nuclear is 100% clean (unless there's an accident, and then it's horrible). Electricity is an efficient energy for air conditioning, so nuclear powered electricity could power and cool a data center with virtually no emissions.

            Offshore wind is a stable source of energy, and Delaware (which is on the coast) has been planning an offshore wind farm. So, given this new power plant would likely be used for at least a few decades, the opportunity to power it with clean offshore wind power is unlikely. If it were on the grid, it would benefit from renewable wind power.

            Pollution from in-home heating/cooking is vented out of the home. When it's not, it causes health issues. The volume of emissions from this proposed plant would be much higher than the sum of the heating/cooking emissions of all the homes in the City, and it's 24/7 and cannot be turned off by those affected. So it's much worse than the smaller amount of home emissions for 30 minutes/day. Yes, hospitals and universities have NG power plants but they're in the under 100MW range, and most are under 10MW. This proposed plant is 248MW running full bore 24/7.

            "You can't even tell" is a terrible indicator for health risks from air pollution. The stuff you can't see or smell is some of the most dangerous!
          • Nuclear is 100% clean?

            Really? Then you wouldn't mind having a nuclear waste disposal facility in your back yard.

            Do you have a gas range, or know someone that does? Ever wonder how you can burn that gas in your home? Apparently most here do not know the waste byproducts of burning natural gas: heat, water and carbon dioxide. That's about as clean as you can get, and that's why you can burn it INSIDE your home. The protesters who are complaining about someone burning it outside of their home are likely burning it inside of theirs.
          • Nuclear is 100% to the air and to people

            You're correct. I was referring to air emissions. But even the waste from nuclear is contained in a way that does not -- when done correctly -- affect public health or climate change. On the other hand, fossil fuel burning -- even when done correctly -- DOES still significantly affect public health and climate change.

            Yes, I have a gas range and furnace. A November 2013 NIH study found that "cooking with a gas stove can expose you to unhealthy levels of air pollution"

            My home gas burning is vented outside my home, such that the concentrations of emissions are at an appropriate distance away from people (inside as well as outside) who would be affected.

            I'm not a dispersion expert, but TDC's 24/7 plant will burn about 20X as many minutes of the day as the typical kitchen range. For the given proximity to homes and schools -- many of which were purchased AFTER the University pledged to make it an environmentally sustainable and responsible campus -- it's a massive amount of gas that would be burned compared to the relative trickle used in thousands of homes. The study on indoor air is concerned with a magnitude/distance ratio similar to the outdoor effect of those emissions on homes only 800 feet away. And no one affected can turn it off.

            Consider that the lawyers defending TDC in a City zoning appeal hearing three weeks ago did not rebut the health study affadavit, and even admitted there were health concerns due to air emissions, but said it was not a City issue and instead deferred to the state EPA. However, the Delaware state EPA does not enforce at the City level, or even have a monitor in Newark, DE.

            So your points are correct in principal, but at the magnitudes involved, this huge power plant is problematic. Even the University's own Sustainability Task Force just voiced their concerns over it, too. Concerns are not limited only to those nearby, or even to residents.
          • But you still have to dispose of the waste

            Any ideas as to why Yucca Mountain is so unpopular in Nevada? Personally, I'm not all that thrilled at the prospect of boxcars full of nuclear waste running within a couple of miles of my house on their way there.
            John L. Ries
  • Makes sense

    Power cogeneration is common for large facilities. I'm sure a lot of your larger university campuses, or hospitals generate most of their own power/heat. This isn't a new concept. Having a dedicated power supply helps secure more up-time. Which, for a datacentre, would make sense. During the conversion process of gas into electricity, excess heat/steam is generated as a byproduct and is used to heat the entire facility, making it a more environmentally solution. Any excess electricity generated is sold to the grid, any deficits purchased from the grid.
    • Correction

      *environmentally friendly solution
  • University and Local Politics are in bed with the highest bidder only

    The issues with this specific university is that they have historically hijacked the town and its people for years making land grabs based on purely backroom deals that are designed to decive. The image above is funny because it appears to be the same one used for their crack town meeting, where they imported a bunch of out of towners to contest the locals claims but what you have missing in that image is literally all the houses jammed right up against the border, they have been conveniently ommitted from this picture touted as "the plan". See there are no houses anywhere near the sight, is what they said. That didnt last long. Then there was the zoning which was not fully disclosed to the public yet but somehow by some "coincidence" the smoke stacks were planned to be the exact hight limit approved by the backroom deals they made with the city officials. There is also already a super high power line going into the site left over from Chrysler, it makes no sense what so ever that they want to rip that out to put in a different power source. So the houses in the adjacent neighborhood, seriously about 100 feet from the edge of the plant, will have trains full of natural gas flowing right next to their homes and definitely more pollution from their new smokestacks.

    So you see it has nothing to do with actually benefitting the town, the jobs they are filling will be with their own people that they plan on importing. Being familar with Newark politics and that inane University, I am not surprised they are trying to pull off more backroom deals. This is what the townees are interested in running out of town.
    • and many others are missing the underlying point

      How about in your backyard instead? I mean literally right in your yard practically.

      It has nothing to do with a well thought and disclosed plan as you have so thoughtfully spelled out, its the fact that Newark De politics and their relationship with the University have always been something comparable to Communism, the locals are just about tired of it, and they have not been honest in their disclosures so why would we want ANYTHING to do with this plan? Datacenter yay, dilluted deceptive plans for a power plant, boo!!!

      I am all for a well planned datacenter, but this is a brand new datacenter compnay. This is their first building. They have so far made it clear that the interests of the townees is not in their "scope".

      Its pretty easy to say, hey whats wrong with these people but it takes a little more effort to try and understand the whole picture.
      • Local politics and such.

        I'm not familiar with your local politics, nor where/how optically this plant sits. Those are outside of the context that I was speaking to. From a strictly economical and environmental standpoint what their proposing (as per this article) makes sense. If you are in a larger urban area, power generating facilities are all over the place (hospitals, universities, etc.) but you would never know it (visually they don't stand out).

        The point I was trying to make is that the conversion of 1 energy source to electricity is usually quite an inefficient process. At least here they would maximize the benefit of this conversion process by using the heat/steam to warm the datacentre. Where I live, the most common way, by far, to heat a home is by way of a gas-line. A facility like the one above would just require a larger line or multiple lines. I live in a city of +1M and its never been a concern. Think of it like heating a really big home that has a really big furnace. They are going to consume some sort of energy to heat the place, they might as well implement a system that creates that heat AND produces electricity for only marginal additional cost, as opposed to buying gas to heat the place, and then go to market to buy electricity (which likely used gas) at a way higher cost and larger overall gas consumption.
        • Data centers are hot. Getting rid of the heat is the goal.

          I acknowledge that heat can be used to cool, but just wanted to correct your repeated references to "heating" the building. Data Centers generate so much heat that cooling is the challenge.

          And you mention hospitals/universities have power plants, which is true. But this power plant is running at over 15 times the power consumption rate of the entire University. It's big enough to power the University plus the 30,000 resident City combined, FIVE TIMES OVER. And NONE of the power generated is even for the University or City; it's for this commercial data center that benefits no one in the community around it other than about 70 full time jobs it will bring. And yet anything else there would actually employ more people. The University won't even use the power. There is no planned University research at the facility. It's just a plan for money.

          When the University acquired this campus a few years ago, they promised to create an "environment that aims to protect natural resources and maximizes human comfort and well-being." - UD Science & Technology Campus Development Guidelines, page 105

          • Let's use steam

            Change heat to steam then. Are they using the steam efficiently is the better question? The power is secondary as it represents only 20% of the conversion process. If they are creating excess steam, then that's the real issue! Otherwise I don't see the problem.
          • Keep in mind

            I can only work with the info from the article. Journalists usually do a poor job or providing all relevant information.