Will the University of Delaware's 'Island' Data Center Work?

October 15, 2013

"In 2009, The University of Delaware purchased a 272-acre site formerly home to the Chrysler Assembly Plant. Since then, the university has been constructing its Science, Technology and Advance Research (STAR) campus, the first complex of which is due to open in January 2014. However, a new development in the project is causing conflict between the school and local residents – the university’s recent announcement of plans to construct a 900,000-square-foot data center and accompanying power plant on the site, NBC’s Philadelphia affiliate reported.

The proposed build, which is projected to cost at least $1 billion, marks both an innovative opportunity for data center construction and represents a lightning rod for data center-related environmental concerns, with discussions surrounding the power plant plans, NBC reported. For the project, the university partnered with wholesale data center builder and operator The Data Centers, LLC (TDC), which is headquartered in Delaware. The on-site power plant would make the data center an effective “island,” according to TDC, separating it from the local power grid and insulating it from any interruptions or outages in energy supply.

TDC representatives stated that the Wolf Technology Center 1 project will be the first-ever data center constructed utilizing heat and power generation technology in such a configuration and scope. The concept is TDC’s own design, with patents currently pending in both the United States and abroad. The completely energy self-sufficient, combined heat and power (CHP) facility would be LEED certified, and TDC pointed out in a September public meeting that CHP facilities are approved by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy for their efficient, reliable power provision.

Providing Constant Coverage with CHPs
CHP facilities themselves are not new. The EPA created the CHP Partnership in 2001 to foster cost-efficient CHP projects around the country. Hospitals and schools are among the facilities that currently use island mode and uninterruptible power to protect themselves from electrical service interruptions. TDC said that they are using a similar method in their proposed data center project to offer the university and other tenants the same level of protection. Besides university data needs, the facility is expected to play host to financial firms, other education institutions, telecommunications firms and researchers from both the public and private sectors. Additionally, the university is expected to lease space to retail data center providers.

TDC outlined some advantages of their design on their website. One of the main benefits of the island mode, the company argued, is that the facility will be optimized to accommodate higher power densities generated by cloud services. Additionally, on-site energy generation provides a highly available source of clean energy and cost-effective cooling, which would enable operators to phase out costly emergency backup systems. This would significantly reduce back-end and operational expenditures. Higher density capacities would also allow operators to quadruple the amount of IT equipment without needing additional space.

Is It Worth It?
Not everyone is excited about the project, however. Willett Kempton, a professor at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, recently questioned the need for such a large facility in an opinion piece for the Delaware News Journal. Kempton has a background in the development and operation of small research power plants. He wrote that the power plant’s size is “oddly large”, pointing out that the proposed 248 megawatts of power generation far exceeds the amount utilized in most data centers, which use about 30 to 50 megawatts.

“The city of Newark uses a total of 50 megawatts,” Kempton wrote. “So the proposed power plant could power five cities the size of Newark. Why does this data center require so much more power than others? Is this really a commercial power plant by another name?”

Kempton also stated that proposed energy-saving benefits are canceled out by the sheer size of the power plant facility, as the plant would end up producing excessive heat. While acknowledging that the jobs created would help the city of Newark, currently struggling with a 7.3 percent unemployment rate, he wrote that the drawbacks ultimately outweigh the advantages.

In an opposing piece written for the Delaware News Journal, Delaware Reps. Michael P. Mulrooney and Edward Osienski touted the energy-saving and job-creation benefits of the facility. They wrote that Delaware has not experienced such a significant job-creating economic enterprise in decades, arguing that it could be the biggest single commercial project in the history of the First State and will create almost 300 permanent jobs following construction. They wrote that the “power plant” connotation, which conjures “images of contaminant-belching smokestacks,” does not effectively reflect what the site will be. They pointed to dedicated services and best-of-breed technology that ensures uptime, mitigates environmental impact and will offer a positive economic development to the area."



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    "In 2009, The University of Delaware purchased a 272-acre site formerly home to the Chrysler Assembly Plant. Since then, the university has been constructing its Science, Technology and Advance Research (STAR) campus, the first complex of which is due to open in January 2014. However, a new development in the ...