Plentiful wind power helps lure Google and Facebook to Iowa

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, April 29, 2013

Wind generation chart

In wind power, the Big Ten is different from basketball. Data courtesy of the Energy Information Administration.

The rural Midwest’s prospects as a hub for data centers that store gobs of electronic data and route billions of emails got a jolt this week, as two of the world’s information technology juggernauts announced they would build or expand data center operations in the heart of what many people consider “flyover country.”

On Tuesday, social media giant Facebook said it will invest $300 million in the community of Altoona, Iowa, to build its third U.S. data center about 13 miles west of Des Moines, the state capital. Google followed suit with its own announcement that it would sink another $400 million into an existing data center campus at Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb.

The investments, while based on a variety of logistical and economic factors, were also driven by a careful reading of the energy landscape, and in particular Iowa’s ability to provide large amounts of renewable energy to run the electricity-hungry data centers.

“We’re excited to have found a new home in Iowa, which has an abundance of wind-generated power and is home to a great talent pool that will help build and operate the facility,” Facebook’s vice president of engineering infrastructure, Jay Parikh, said in a release announcing the company’s decision.

Altoona will host Facebook’s third U.S. data center, following similar centers in Prineville, Ore., and Forest City, N.C. Those two facilities, opened in 2011 and 2012, respectively, have been touted for their use of advanced energy efficiency technologies, and the Oregon center has received Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program. The company also recently completed a similar state-of-the-art data center in Sweden.

Among the advanced technologies Facebook has deployed in Oregon and North Carolina are outside air evaporative cooling systems that require no electricity to cool equipment and customized data servers that use as much as 38 percent less energy than conventional technologies, according to information from the company.

Energy costs ‘a big driver’

According to Parikh, the new Iowa data center will use the same innovative outdoor-air cooling system that the other facilities do, “but it will also incorporate evolutionary improvements to the building design, networking architecture and more.”

“When complete, Altoona will be among the most advanced and energy-efficient facilities of its kind,” he said.

But it remains unclear to what degree Menlo Park, Calif.-based Facebook will use Iowa wind energy to power its data center, which will occupy a 194-acre site with ample room for expansion.

In an email, Facebook spokeswoman Alex Hollander said the company is committed to powering more of its operations with renewable energy, including wind power. Executives have set a goal of achieving a 25 percent clean energy mix by 2015, she said, “and are exploring opportunities in all of the regions were we operate data centers,” including Iowa.

Tina Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Economic Development Authority, which helped broker an $18 million tax incentive deal with Facebook, said recruiters touted Iowa’s energy portfolio, including the state’s abundance of low-cost wind energy. But she said the final incentives package did not require Facebook to procure homegrown wind energy to power the Altoona data center.

Nevertheless, she noted, several other firms with data centers in the state, notably Google and Microsoft, which operates a data center in West Des Moines, also have expressed interest in tapping the state’s wind power resource. “Energy costs are a big driver for these kinds of companies, so having access to renewable energy, as well as having high levels of electricity reliability, are hugely important,” Hoffman said.

Google, the search engine giant based in Mountain View, Calif., began building data centers in Council Bluffs in 2007, and has since nearly tripled that investment to an estimated $1.5 billion. On its website, Google states that the region “has the right combination of energy infrastructure, developable land, and available workforce” for its expanding centers, which process data to support services such as Google Search, Gmail, Google Maps and Google+.

“Our commitment to Council Bluffs and Iowa grows stronger each day,” Chris Russell, Google’s data center operations manager said in a statement announcing the company’s latest $400 million expansion. “As demand for our services grows, our operations need to grow as well. We’re excited to be an integral part of Iowa’s expansion into next generation technology.”

Harold Prior, executive director of the Iowa Wind Energy Association, said his organization is “absolutely thrilled” to have companies like Facebook and Google build out data centers in the state. “It’s huge for our industry, because it shows that they see us as a mainstream provider of electricity,” he said.

Environmental groups added a nudge

While he did not know the specifics of Facebook’s siting decision, Prior noted that the Altoona data center footprint is within a half-mile of an electricity substation owned by MidAmerican Energy Co., one of the nation’s largest utility providers of wind energy, with headquarters in Des Moines.

Facebook and fellow IT companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple have also faced pressure from environmentalists to curb their overall electricity consumption and power energy-intensive facilities like data centers with renewable energy resources.

In December 2011, Facebook and Greenpeace International, which has criticized the IT industry’s heavy reliance on fossil fuel-based power, struck a deal under which Facebook agreed to a siting policy giving preference to locations with access to a clean and renewable energy supply.

The company also pledged to engage in “dialogue with our utility providers about increasing the supply of clean energy that power Facebook data centers,” according to a fact sheet on the agreement.

Google also has a corporate policy to produce or purchase large quantities of renewable energy to run its data centers and other operations. Earlier this month, Google announced it was partnering with Duke Energy on a program to expand its Lenoir, N.C., data center by using exclusively renewable energy.

Google has also engaged utilities and policy makers on strategies to expand renewable energy offerings to customers using a variety of pricing mechanisms, including power purchase agreements, renewable energy credits and renewable energy tariffs. Much of the company’s clean energy strategy has been published ( online and in a series of white papers, including one on power purchase agreements and more recently renewable energy tariffs.