Google will break ground this year on a new, $600 million data center in rural Jackson County near Scottsboro on the site of a recently retired coal-fired power plant. The project, which is predicted to employ about 100 people to start, has attracted attention for its economic development potential as well as its environmental implications.
“For more than 50 years, the Widows Creek plant has generated electricity for the region, ” says Gary Demasi, director of Global Infrastructure at Google. “Now the site will be used to bring Internet services and information to people around the world, powered by 100 percent renewable energy. We see a lot of potential in redeveloping large industrial sites like former coal plants, and we’re excited to bring a data center to Alabama.”
Google already has 13 data centers around the world, and the options were endless for locating its 14th. The company selected Alabama — and specifically, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Widows Creek site — for a number of reasons. Not only does the location offer an opportunity to redevelop an industrial site into a model of renewable energy but it also provides a great deal of infrastructure needed to power a high-tech data center.
“The decision was very site-specific, ” says Dus Rogers, president and CEO of the Jackson County Economic Development Authority. “There is a lot of electrical infrastructure in that location, because it was formerly a power plant. There is also access to a robust water system in the nearby city of Bridgeport.”
Not only does the existing plant offer good power lines but TVA power plants also offer access to plenty of water. The energy provider needs water to power electricity, but Google needs water to use in cooling its computers.
There are also existing rail lines into the Widows Creek site, so Google will likely be able to access buried conduits along the tracks to run fiber optic cable. And because the site has plenty of space available, Google will be able to build a campus site with multiple buildings.
“We see a lot of value in redeveloping coal plants and other industrial sites. Decades of investment in infrastructure shouldn’t go to waste just because a site has shut down, ” Demasi says. “We can use the electricity transmission lines to bring lots of renewable energy to our data center, and TVA has been a great partner in helping us meet our goal of using as much renewable energy as possible.”
As the region’s electric power operator, TVA is working with Google to scout for new renewable power projects and put them online. In other locations, Google is using wind power and solar power to reduce its energy usage significantly. Google’s ultimate goal is to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy, Demasi says.
While the site was a good fit for Google, company leaders also were impressed by local and state officials’ willingness to work with them and meet their needs. For instance, the Google data center is the first project recruited under Alabama’s specialized data center incentives, passed in 2012, and the Alabama Jobs Act, an overhaul of the state’s economic development incentives platform passed in 2015.
“Overall, Jackson County had the right combination of energy infrastructure and developable land, ” Demasi says. “More importantly, Jackson County and the state of Alabama worked incredibly hard to make this site work for one of our data centers. We are looking forward to being a part of this community for many years to come.”
Gary Demasi, director of global infrastructure for Google, speaks at the project announcement.
Photo courtesy of Tennessee Valley Authority
What happens at a data center?
Google’s successful service — which is supported by ad revenue — is based on the search engine’s ability to rank search results. This capacity requires lots of servers, which send out “crawlers” to collect live data from the Web. These crawler programs come back with fully loaded pages and dump all that information into a huge database. When an Internet user types in a search term, a different set of Google computers dips into that database, pulling out millions of results. These results are filtered, sorted and distributed to the user — all within seconds — using a sophisticated set of algorithms.
All that high-tech work is made possible by the computer equipment stored and used in Google’s data centers. “Our employees at the Jackson County data center will work to keep Google Search, Gmail, YouTube and many other Google applications operational, enabling Google to provide fast and reliable services around the clock to millions of people, ” Demasi says.
Employees who work at Google data centers “focus on ensuring that the facilities’ computers are running at optimum speed and efficiency, ” Demasi continues. The different positions require a variety of skills and backgrounds — ranging from experienced data center managers, Linux administrators, computer repair technicians to electrical and mechanical facility operations and maintenance technicians — who demonstrate potential to excel in intense hardware environments.
The Alabama data center is part of Google’s long-term growth strategy. “We invest in capacity both for our current and future needs, ” Demasi says. “Our expansions are part of the gradual process of growing our capacity for the future and will allow us to better serve our users around the world.”
Reaping the benefits
While Google users across the globe will benefit from the work that happens in the Jackson County data center, by having ensured access to ongoing quick, reliable search results, residents of Jackson County and Alabama will also reap large rewards.
For instance, the data center represents the first high-tech employer in Jackson County, and local leaders expect it to be a trendsetter. “While a lot of our residents work in high-tech industries in Huntsville and Chattanooga, we’ve never been known for high-tech jobs here, ” Rogers says. “But Google is often a leading indicator. We have a certified data center site, and we expect to develop a data corridor here.”
With the passage of the state’s data center initiatives in 2012, Alabama leaders have also been looking to land more projects like the Google center, as they are known for providing well paid jobs with highly technical skill sets, a supplier support system and possible infrastructure upgrades.
“Google has established itself as the world leader in efficient data center technology, ” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, at the time of the announcement. “With the growing reliance on cloud computing projected to continue boosting the growth of data center operations, we think our relationship with Google will yield other opportunities in the future.”
Site work has been completed and a 100-acre building pad has been poured at the Widows Creek site. Construction will begin this year, with hundreds of construction jobs to be filled, and the data center is expected to open in 2017.
Currently, Google is looking for local managers for the complex and on-site operations, Demasi says. Complete job descriptions for these positions and all future openings — to include facilities work like HVAC and maintenance, systems administrators or software technicians, data center technicians and contracted support services such as security, catering and grounds keeping — will eventually be posted at google.com/jobs.
Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She is based in Huntsville.
Text by Nancy Mann Jackson