Data center boom sparks environmental disputes in U.S.

Environmentally friendly buildings are growing in popularity, but some community members feel data center burnout

Rolling into Redmond, Ore., as part of a Facebook-led tour of its new data center in nearby Prineville was like stepping into an episode of "Leave it to Beaver." Airport employees greeted people warmly and even TSA agents sent folks off with a cheery, "Have a good day!"

Facebook will tell you it's been an economic gift to this rural area of central Oregon. Some people who make their homes here are quick to agree.

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"They are bringing jobs. We love Facebook," exclaimed Sandy Pupo, a 61-year-old resident who works part time in an airport gift shop.

(You can see a video tour of the Facebook facility here.)

But Prineville's enthusiasm could be due to it being such a new player in the Northwest data center game. About five hours away, across the border in Washington, some residents of another rural Northwestern U.S. town don't feel as happy about data centers.

"My house looks out toward the Beasley Hills and it's a rare day that you can see those clearly now," said Patty Martin, who is concerned about pollution in Quincy since six companies began operating data centers there, with construction beginning in 2006. Martin served as Quincy's mayor from 1993 to 1997. She is leading an effort to challenge the environmental practices of some of the data centers in Quincy, claiming particulate from diesel running backup generators has an adverse effect on public health. There are six data centers in town, run by Sabey, Dell, Microsoft, Vantage, Yahoo, and Intuit. Martin and other supporters have filed complaints with the state against Microsoft, Yahoo, Dell, and Sabey's Intergate facility.

The difference between public opinion in Quincy and Prineville may come down to a concerted effort in environmentally friendly data center design, a shift that's only recently become popular.

"In the olden days, two or three years ago, it was redundancy that [technology companies were] looking at," said Ken Patchett, the Facebook data center manager in Prineville. "Today, we're looking at resiliency."

Facebook has been able to save money by designing the airflow in its Prineville facility to take advantage of the climate's cool temperatures, a major draw for companies looking to build in the Pacific Northwest. One of the largest expenses in traditionally built data centers is from the energy it takes to keep the servers from overheating. Facebook has also redesigned its server racks and electrical components to use less energy, just another environmental friendly bit of design that also saves the company money.

Data center analysts believe the shift in data center design is a fairly new phenomenon coming from a handful of tech companies, specifically those with the capital to invest in building new data centers. Facebook reported that it spent more than $600 million on data centers and servers in 2011.

"The benefit is if you put the efficiency in at the design point, not after the fact, there's a lot more to gain," said Rick Villars, vice president of data center design and cloud research at IDC. "A few big players are defining those changes and the industry will have to respond to that."

Prineville and Quincy are among the most popular U.S. locations for data centers, according to Rachel Dines, senior analyst at Forrester Research. The climate, power costs and tax breaks make them highly desirable.

"Grant County, where Quincy is, has among the lowest electrical rates in the country. That's why people are so interested in it," Dines said. "On the other hand, Prineville doesn't have sales tax, and they have a pretty significant property tax abatement."

Prineville's data center boom is just beginning. Facebook is nearing completion of its second large data-center hall alongside its first facility and Apple, following in Facebook's steps, is building a data center in town too.

In Quincy, Martin has helped bring environmental complaints about data centers to the state environmental board. A hearing about a complaint against Yahoo is scheduled for Nov. 19, while hearings about the complaints against Sabey and Dell are scheduled for next year. But Microsoft was the victor in a recent decision investigating complaints about pollutants from its backup diesel generators. The Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board ruled that there are no health threats to residents of Quincy by generators.

However, Martin is undeterred and praises a technology company that recently built a data center in Quincy and voluntarily made changes to its back-up generators that were not required by law. "Vantage put diesel particulate scrubbers on its generators," Martin said. "They said it's the right thing to do."

Microsoft was contacted for this story and provided a link to a year-old blog post detailing a plan for Microsoft's Quincy data center to transfer its water treatment plant to the municipality of Quincy, as a gift.

Asked for comment, Dell said in a statement that its data center is cooled using "heat-wheel technology," which maximizes use of outside air and reduces the facility's overall energy and water demands. Dell declined to comment specifically about the data center's generators.

Washington environmental authorities have taken air quality measurements in Quincy and said while pollutant levels have gone up since the data centers were built, pollution levels are still much lower than would be found in nearby cities. The Department of Ecology has taken measurements for several years in Quincy and recently found that Intuit's generators gave off the most exhaust.

Intuit and Sabey didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Patchett said Facebook's Prineville facility has six generators in its first building, but adds that the building was designed to rarely use them.

Facebook is continuing to build data centers around the world and expects its data center in Sweden to come online next year. It worked with the local Swedish power company to redesign access to the utility grid, which allowed Facebook to go without backup generators completely.

"One thing we're really proud of is being able to get rid of generators there, because of the upstream design," said Jay Parikh, vice president of Facebook's infrastructure engineering.

"I hate to sound cynical but the motivation for environmental design is usually not just about being a good corporate citizen ... it tends to be less being green for the environment and more being green like money," Forrester's Dines said.

Prineville's mayor, Betty Roppe, sees the data center boom in a more favorable light, pointing out that before the data centers were built in Prineville, the unemployment rate was one of the highest in the state. It's down to about 14 percent now, which is still high, but she expects even more jobs to come out of Facebook and Apple's data centers. Currently Facebook estimates about 60 people work full time at its data center, not accounting for the influx of construction workers.

"It's given the community a real sort of optimism and we're just tickled pink to have [Facebook]," Roppe said. She hasn't heard any concerns about back-up-generator diesel exhaust or other environmental issues.

Jim Hemberry, Quincy's mayor, declined to comment on the environmental complaints leveled at some data centers by Martin and her supporters, but says the data centers have brought significantly more money to the city in property taxes.

"Prior to the first data centers being built, Quincy had an assessed value of $265 million. Now we are at $1.1 billion," he said.