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Profs v Senators in datacenter/powerplant fight

UD studies economic development deal

The University of Delaware faculty senate voted 43-0 in May to recommend against a 279-megawatt, gas-fired power plant on a former Chrysler factory at the University of Delaware campus, as part of a $1 billion-plus proposal by West Chester-based Data Centers LLC -- which enjoys support from Gov. Jack Markell and UD president Patrick Harker.

On June 9 the Democratic-led state legislature's Joint Finance Committee retaliated, voting unanimously to stop $3 million in UD operating funds, pending a final UD decision to back the data center. The committee went too far in bullying UD, says State Sen. Greg Lavelle, leader of the minority Republicans. But Lavelle stands with Democratic leaders in backing the data center and power plant as job, tax, and spending magnets. (More on that vote, with links, here.)

Faculty members aren't against the data center, says Professor Michael Chajes, UD's engineering school dean from 2007 to 2011. The center's proposed seven-burner, off-the-grid power plant is the issue: It would run on natural gas, which Chajes agrees is cleaner than other fuels, but still a hydrocarbon, on a campus that had carefully drafted and adopted a plan to reduce its "carbon footprint."

The faculty was surprised by the revised larger scale of the power plant, which, as a reliable source of salable surplus electricity, is central to the project, Earl Eugene Kern, the chief executive for the data center, told me last year. (More on the data center project, with links, here.)

Chajes fears the power plant will turn the ex-Chrysler property into a largely automated but heavy-industry site, not the high-tech incubator, research, and skilled-employment center UD wants.

Charles Riordan, chemistry professor and vice provost for research, who abstained from the faculty vote, heads an official "working group" studying the data center's claims. Riordan told me the group plans its report to top administrators "in the next couple of weeks."

Gas isn't a deal-killer if a plant is efficiently designed, he added.

If the complex rises, "job creation down there is going to be massive," says John Bland, business agent for Bensalem-based Local 13 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. He compared the UD plan to Sunoco Logistics' $1 billion refit of its Marcus Hook oil refinery for the Mariner East gas project: Bland said that similarly-priced project had so far created work to keep 300 trade members busy every workday for a year. "If you stop this [data center], you might as well put two signs on I-95 on either end of the state: Closed for Business," Bland told me.

No faculty members say they're against jobs. But the professors say it is their job to look beyond a few years' payments and seek what's best long term for the communities served by the school, which traces its roots to 1743, before Delaware was a state.  -- From my column in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer