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Gas attack: U of Delaware kills $1 billion data center/power plant

After 'unanimously' critical report

The University of Delaware says "it has terminated its lease agreement with The Data Centers, LLC, putting a halt to TDC's plans to develop a data center" and natural gas power plant on the Science, Technology & Advanced Research (STAR) Campus adjoining the partly state-backed Newark, Del. school, after a committee of UD officials and profs "unanimously" voted against the project. Statement here, report link below.

According to UD, administrators and professors in the Working Group assigned to review the proposal "concluded that the proposed facility, which included a 279-megawatt cogeneration power plant, is not consistent with a first class science and technology campus and high quality development to which UD is committed. The findings are detailed in the Group's report," posted on the UD website. 

Data Centers boss Eugene Kern didn't immediately respond to phone and email messages to his Paoli office. The project had been supported early on by Gov. Jack Markell, UD President Patrick Harker, legislators from both parties, and construction contractors and unions who hoped to build the $1 billion-plus plant, but opposed by Newark neighbors and a unanimous Spring vote of the UD faculty senate, who questioned the large natural gas-burning electric power plant the project's backers included in their proposal.

Gov. Markell statement: "Appropriately the university conducted an extensive review of the facts and came to the determination that this project is not a good fit for the STAR campus. The Governor remains interested in working with UD to develop that site in a manner that will create jobs and strengthen Delaware's network of science and technology businesses."

In a statement, Harker said he still backs commercial development at the former Chrysler plant site, but "it is extremely important" that such projects are "appropriate both for the short and the long term, and that future generations of students will have a top-quality education. We have carefully examined The Data Centers' plans, and have determined that they are not a good fit for the STAR Campus."

The statement added:" The size of the power plant and the potential effects of resulting greenhouse gases and other pollutants on the environment" convinced the working group to "unanimously recommended to University leadership that plans to support such a facility should not be approved." Harker then concurred.

Faculty members who had researched The Data Centers and led opposition to the power plant part of the proposal were grateful.  "At the end of the day, there was a genuine alignment of interests -- those of the Newark community, the University of Delaware, and a clean and healthy environment," Prof. Thomas M. Powers, director of UD's Center for Science, Ethics & Public Policy, told me.

"I am very pleased," said UD engineering Prof. and ex-Dean Michael J. Chajes. "Now that this project is settled, we can all work together to attract businesses to the STAR Campus that will both provide high quality jobs and be consistent with UD's commitment to clean energy and the environment."

Report summary, from the UD statement:

• A data center would be advantageous to the STAR Campus, with the potential to provide research and internship opportunities, enhance the property infrastructure so as to attract other tenants; provide construction and permanent jobs and provide tax revenue for local schools and community.

• Contemporary high quality data centers use the existing grid or deploy a combination of the existing grid and renewable energy generation to meet their power needs. This approach appears to be advantageous on many grounds: reliability, economic and environmental.

• Relative to other fossil-fuel energy sources, the combined heat and power (CHP) facility TDC proposed is an efficient and viable transitional energy generation technology. However, its efficiency is predicated on being appropriately sized such that the recovered heat can be used or sold throughout the year as useful energy. Specifically with TDC's plan, it was not clear that this would be the case, particularly in the non-summer months.

• The 279-megawatt cogeneration facility that TDC proposed is significantly (at least two times) larger than any other on-site power generation facility known at data centers in the United States.

• Significant generation of greenhouse gases with insufficient plans to capture and sequester carbon dioxide and the emission of other pollutants would have demonstrative and negative effects on UD's commitments to sustainability and reducing its carbon footprint.

• Given the University's commitment to reduced carbon emissions, and its strong reputation in renewable and carbon-free energy research, the emplacement of a fossil-fuel based facility of this size does not appear consistent with UD's vision of a first class science and technology campus or its Path to Prominence.

UD concluded: "The University of Delaware remains committed to developing the STAR Campus to support cutting-edge research, provide educational and professional opportunities for students, foster innovation and create jobs to enrich the community."

Full disclosure: I have two kids who are students at UD. They were neutral about the Data Center project, other than hoping it would bring in lots of jobs for students and grads.