Google announces $600M Lenoir data center expansion

efrazier@charlotteobserver.combhendorson@charlotteobserver.comApril 19, 2013 

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Gov. Pat McCrory signs a shovel at Google's groundbreaking after the major economic development announcement at Google's data center in Caldwell County on Friday: The company said it is launchign a $600 million expansion of its Lenoir data center.

MARIA SHARP — msharp@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

— Google on Friday announced a $600 million expansion of its Lenoir data center, a development state and local officials trumpeted as proof of North Carolina’s attractiveness to high-tech companies.

Officials also said Google intends to join a new Duke Energy program aimed at getting major power consumers to use renewable energy.

The news came little more than six years after the California-based Internet search giant broke ground at its 215-acre site in Caldwell County. The company, which had said it planned to expand on it its initial $600 million investment, said Friday that it will build a third building on the campus.

That brings Google’s North Carolina. investment to $1.2 billion.

“It’s great news for Caldwell County and our state,” Gov. Pat McCrory said.

The expansion won’t immediately create new technology jobs, however. About 150 people work at the data center, most of whom were hired locally. A Google spokesman said the company will eventually hire more workers, but he didn’t have any numbers to share Friday.

To land Google in 2007, N.C. officials offered 30 years of state and local tax breaks potentially worth more than $260 million – one of the richest incentives deals in N.C. history. Critics said the state gave up too much for a facility that would employ so few people.

By comparison, the deal announced last month to bring insurance giant MetLife and 2,600 jobs to North Carolina called for nearly $100 million in incentives.

Caldwell County officials suggested Google was well worth the price tag, noting that the company’s presence has reinvigorated the public image of a region that has suffered greatly from the decline in the manufacturing sector.

They said Friday’s news solidifies the area’s standing as the epicenter of the state’s growing data center corridor. Apple built a data center in Maiden, while Facebook has one in Forest City.

Jeff Branch, chairman of the Caldwell County commissioners’ board, said the region is “on the cutting edge” of the fast-growing digital sector. “In a county like ours, Google can make a big difference,” he said.

Added Lenoir Mayor Pro Tem T.J. Rohr: “Suddenly working in technology isn’t just something a guidance counselor talks about. It’s a career you can have and stay here in Lenoir.” The city is about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte.

McCrory stressed that economic development is about people, not numbers. He singled out Paul Bowman, a Google employee who’d grown up in Caldwell County. Bowman operated molding machinery at a furniture manufacturer before going to community college and getting skills that helped him land his current job as an operations engineer.

“This is what it’s all about,” McCrory said. “Helping the individual and their family have a great quality of life.”

Shaking the governor’s hand later, Bowman said, “You wouldn’t believe how much a little bit (of additional education) will help.”

The expansion will be included in a renewable energy program Charlotte-based Duke Energy is creating for large customers. Duke plans to make a regulatory filing with the North Carolina Utilities Commission within 90 days, seeking approval for a new rate structure that would encourage large consumers like Google to use renewable energy.

Duke says its program would help companies like Google meet their sustainability goals while encouraging development of renewable energy in the state. Energy sold under the new tariff would come from new sources, it says, either from independent renewable-energy developers or projects Duke itself creates.

“We hope the interest will extend beyond Google,” said spokesman Jeff Brooks. North Carolina does not let companies buy renewable energy directly from on-site generation – only utilities can sell electricity. Duke maintains the so-called third-party sales would hurt consumers but said the new tariff is not a response to efforts to allow those sales.

State legislators are also debating legislation to freeze or repeal the state’s renewable-energy standard, which was enacted in 2007. Brooks said Duke has not asked for any changes to the standard.

Google and other data companies use vast networks of computer servers in their data centers, all of which require massive amounts of power. Google’s Caldwell County center houses systems supporting Google search, Gmail, the Google+ social network and YouTube.

“As more of the world moves online, demand for Google’s services continues to grow,” said Gary Demasi, director of Google’s global infrastructure team. “We want our renewable energy options to grow with it.”

Owners of power-hungry data centers have been under growing pressure from environmental groups to use clean energy.

The New York Times reported in 2011 that Google’s data centers sucked in almost 260 million watts, or about a quarter of the output of a nuclear power plant, to run its searches and other Internet services.

Google said in a news release that it operates some of the world’s most efficient data centers, consuming 50 percent less energy than typical centers. It has installed solar panels at its corporate headquarters, and is pushing utilities to offer renewable power options to companies that request it.

Apple says its data center in Maiden, about 40 miles northwest of Charlotte, makes enough renewable energy to displace all the facility’s power usage. The energy it produces goes onto the electric grid.

The company completed a 20-megawatt solar farm next to the center in 2012 and expects a second 20-megawatt farm to go online late this year.

Apple also built a 10-megawatt fuel cell installation that runs on natural gas. In all, the company says its renewable facilities in Maiden produce enough energy to power 17,600 homes for a year.

Greenpeace, a critic of data centers and of Duke, said Friday’s announcement “shows what forward-thinking companies can accomplish when they are serious about powering their operations with clean energy.”

“It’s good news that Duke is beginning to heed their major new customers’ demand for renewable energy sources,” Gary Cook, a Greenpeace IT analyst, said in a statement. “Done right, this Renewable Tariff program could help North Carolina finally begin to realize the benefits of a clean energy revolution, which Duke has blocked in the past.”

Eric Frazier: 704-358-5145; @ericfraz on Twitter

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