New computer centers could affect our electricity bill

  • KATHY DAY / Herald Writer
  • Saturday, November 11, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local News


Herald Writer

It’s new and it’s hungry for power.

On the day AT&T opens its new facility in Lynnwood, the building, which will house many computers and only a few employees, will become Snohomish County’s fourth largest electricity user.

The facility, to be housed in the old HomeBase building, is a sign of things to come, say industry officials.

At least four more data centers are on the drawing boards for various spots around the county, including Arlington, they said.

PUD and local economic development officials said that when completed, the 80,000-square-foot building in Lynnwood will require about 7 to 8 megawatts a year, about a fifth of Boeing’s 50-megawatt load.

Some 48 of the AT&T facilities could fit into Boeing’s Everett plant, still the world’s largest building by volume. Besides Boeing, only Kimberly-Clark and Naval Station Everett will use more power in the county.

Centers like AT&T’s represent the newest trend of stacking computers on computers on computers in the same building to serve companies that need information superhighway access.

And it’s a trend putting a lot of heat on the utilities asked to serve them.

One industry source, Jay Garthwaite of InfoAgeServices, said simply, “Their power resources are phenomenal.”

For example, he said, one data center alone could require as much power as two aircraft carriers the size of the USS Lincoln or a small city the size of Wenatchee.

The explosive growth in these facilities recently led Seattle City Light to set up a new rate structure for such companies. Puget Sound Energy is looking at a possible tariff for its large users.

Those actions, and the impending arrival of the facility in Lynnwood, prompted Snohomish County PUD board President Kathy Vaughn to ask for a report on how these businesses will affect the local district. It hasn’t been presented yet.

The other centers planned in the county could range in size from 100,000 to 400,000 square feet, Garthwaite said.

Also under construction are new high-tech office complexes in Lynnwood and Everett being built with software, dotcom or biotech tenants in mind.

There’s the former Raytheon building in Mukilteo’s Harbour Pointe area, which was recently purchased by WiredZone, a Dallas real estate company that is marketing the space for technology companies with intense need for power and fiber-optic connections.

While they’re looking to build more of a “community” of tenants who do business with each other, they recognize that the industries they’re targeting will require computers as well, just not at quite the intensity that a data center will, said Vance Detweiler, the company’s executive vice president.

Even so, WiredZone’s 350,000-square-foot project initially will require a threefold increase in power to the site and perhaps more later, said a PUD official.

Several issues come into play when calculating how to deal with these large power users, explained Garth Williams, a PUD executive accounts manager.

  • What is the district’s capacity? Can it meet the customer’s demands?

  • How does the district set the price for delivering power and not raise the bill for the rest of us?

  • Where will the extra energy come from?

    “It used to be easy,” Williams said of setting rates. But he added that fluctuating energy prices and the distribution picture in the Northwest are complicating matters.

    Some companies could end up buying power from supplemental sources, like the proposed Florida Power &Light gas turbine facility in Everett, if local utilities can’t provide it.

    In California, the fear of brownouts is so great that the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group has set up a task force to study that region’s electricity shortage because they “had no confidence that the power we need is going to be there,” a spokesman said recently.

    Demand for these new centers is putting pressure on utility and city officials to get plans approved quickly because the type of companies coming in want to be operating “yesterday,” Williams said.

    Garthwaite, whose company represents data center developers, said negotiations with utility officials don’t revolve around “how much” but “how fast” the power lines can be installed and hooked to the system.

    “Almost all have the money to be able to pay a premium to accelerate (the project),” he said, noting that the companies make up for it in what they charge to lease the equipment or space.

    A project like AT&T’s would normally take as long as three years from proposal to completion, Williams said. In this case the company is getting it done within 12 months because it was able to use a transformer already on order, the “timing was lucky” and AT&T can facilitate some of the other equipment orders, he added.

    Besides the basic need for power, these companies want reliability because if their computers go down, so do their customers’, a frightening prospect for a catalog company taking orders online or one routing e-mail. As a result, they’re requiring “redundancy” in terms of power from a second source.

    They want dual feeds bringing power from more than one location along with battery backup or diesel generators on site. Some have their own wells and diesel fuel tanks.

    On the other side, utilities are demanding protection for their other customers and their systems. They don’t want smaller business or residential customers bearing any of the costs and they don’t want the quality of power to their other customers affected by the high-demand users, Williams added.

    Tight controls and financial agreements are being drafted to make sure that “before we make a commitment, we get money up front so we don’t expose our customer-owners to risk,” he said.

    The critical nature of this new business can be seen in how it’s being described. As Garthwaite put it, “The specifications are as robust as a mission critical military center.”

    There’s the name for the new facility recently opened by Zama Networks on Seattle’s southern edge: Internet Data Fort.

    Or you could look at the amount of money being invested: AT&T recently announced that it will partner with two other companies to invest $2 billion in building 44 data centers in 16 different countries.

    That could explain why power industry officials are trying to get on the offensive.

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