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Google Is Turning This Smog-Belching Coal Plant Into a Clean Energy Server Farm

The company is spending $600 million to build a data center that will one day be 100 percent powered by renewable energy.
Image: Google

A smog-belching, financially struggling coal power plant in northern Alabama is getting a new lease on life next year—as a Google data center that will run completely on renewable energy.

The Tennessee Valley Authority's Widows Creek Power Plant, which first opened in 1952, has been slowly shuttering since 2012 due to what a TVA spokesperson said in an interview was the "economically and environmentally irresponsible" cost of operating the high-emission plant. With the final power-generating stack scheduled to go dark this coming October, Google made a $600 million offer to buy the plant, and repurpose the facility to meet the company's growing data storage needs.

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"We see a lot of opportunities in redeveloping a lot of former industrial sites," Google spokesperson and public policy manager Matt Kallman told Motherboard. "A lot of infrastructure at these sites doesn't have to go to waste just because it's shut down. At this particular site we can use the existing electrical grid to make sure that our data center is powered reliably."

The site is now scheduled to reopen in 2016 as a data center—a massive server warehouse that Google will use to run Gmail, Google Search and their cloud computing services. When complete, it will be Google's 14th data center, and first new US data center since 2007, though not its first attempt at making the internet's carbon footprint smaller.

"It definitely is a continuation of our longtime commitment to renewable energy we have a long term goal of becoming 100 percent reliant on renewable energy," Kallman said. "We have been taking steps to make that happen for a long time."

Those steps, Kallman added, have included getting permission to purchase renewable energy from utilities where Google operates, which has allowed the internet giant to make renewable sources account for 35 percent of its company-wide power usage.

Greenpeace spokesperson David Pomerantz said the future of the Widows Creek plant—which generated 4.4 million tons of CO2 in 2013—represents more than a reduction in carbon emissions.

"Google's going to a part of the country that really is coal heavy and very low on renewable energy and it's going there and saying 'we're going to put a big facility here and run it on completely renewable energy,'" Pomerantz said. "This is important because TVA has done very little in the way of renewable energy and it shows that when a company like Google demands renewable energy, they can get it directly from the utility. I think these utilities are recognizing that they have to meet that demand."

The significance, he said, is that more companies are now understanding that making investments in renewable energy pays off—both environmentally and financially—which sends a clear message to skeptics.

"This deal sends a very difficult to ignore signal to utilities, to legislators, to regulators, to governors," Pomerantz said. "That the internet companies that represent the future of our economy want renewable energy."