New Data Center in Alabama
The search giant announced Wednesday that it was opening a 14th data center. This one is in Alabama, inside a former coal-fired power plant. Google has also cut a deal with the Tennessee Valley Authority, the region’s electric power operator to scout for new renewable power projects and put them online.
“Data centers are attractive customers” to power suppliers, said Urs Hölzle, Google’s senior vice president for technical infrastructure. In turn, he said, “bringing in alternative power was important to us.”
“In the next 12 months, we will look at plausible projects,” he said. While wind power appears to be the furthest along in producing energy cheaply, he noted that Google had already done a solar energy project in South Africa.
Google says it now uses 1.5 percent of the United States wind power capacity, and claims it gets 3.5 times the computing power from the same amount of energy compared to three years ago. Given the ever-rising demands for computing, and the ever-increasing size of the Internet Google has to crawl to figure out what is out there, “my guess is that the energy used per search has gone down,” Mr. Hölzle said.
The Alabama plant first started generating power in 1952, but the T.V.A. has slowly been winding down its production because of a “changing regulatory and economic environment.” The last of eight generators is expected to be shut down in October, according to the T.V.A.’s website.
While there is considerable irony in taking over a coal-burning plant and promoting alternative power, there are pragmatic reasons Google would want to put this data center, its seventh in the United States, in such a facility. These are typically large and solid structures, clearly with good power lines, but also access to lots of water, which Google uses for cooling its computers. The Alabama plant is next to a reservoir on the Tennessee River. There are also rail lines into the facility, which makes it likely Google can access buried conduits along the tracks to run fiber-optic cable.
In Finland, Google rehabilitated a paper mill, and uses seawater for cooling. Salt water is corrosive for standard metal pipes, of course, so Google created a singular cooling system using plastic pipes.
“We are looking to do a similar type of approach as Finland” in Alabama, said Joe Kava, who leads data center construction at Google. Like many Google sites, he said, Alabama will be “a campus model with multiple buildings.”
Google appears to be on something of a construction binge, with data center expansions in the United States, Singapore, and Belgium just over the last few months. This may be partly because of demand, and partly to risk management on Google’s part.
By having several construction projects underway, Mr. Kava said, the chances of a shortfall in overall capacity from a slowdown at one project were minimized.
Of course, when all of them come online, that means the world’s largest computing system has even more computers. No one at Google seems concerned about whether demand will slow, however.