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Vernon eyes data center for VY property

VERNON—Could rows of quietly whirring computers replace Vermont Yankee?

Seeking long-term options for the former nuclear plant property, the Vernon Planning Commission is looking into the possibility that a technology company could build a data center — sometimes called a “server farm” — at the site.

Commission members were buoyed at a Dec. 14 meeting by Matt Dunne, a former Google executive with experience in siting data centers. Dunne said he believes the Yankee property has many key assets for such a development including land, water, and access to large quantities of reliable power.

“It’s difficult to find the land and the kind of infrastructure that you happen to have here,” Dunne said. “It is a unique site.”

Officials said they would explore the idea further.

“This, to me, is the most exciting thing for Vernon right now out of everything we’ve discussed,” Planning Commission member Patty O’Donnell said.

Confluence of ideas

There has been plenty of discussion about the future of Vernon and Windham County since Vermont Yankee stopped producing power nearly two years ago. The plant now employs fewer than 100 people, down from more than 600 several years ago.

Regionally, there have been major investments in economic development using shutdown settlement money from Vermont Yankee owner Entergy. There also have been intensive planning efforts including an “Ecovation Hub” proposal focused on green building, resilient design, and sustainable agriculture.

In Vernon, officials and residents engaged this year in a Vermont Council on Rural Development-led planning process. The town’s Planning Commission also has worked on economic development initiatives, including a gas-fired power plant proposal that garnered community support but didn’t come to fruition.

The Dec. 14 meeting in Vernon was an example of those town and regional efforts coming together.

Alex Wilson, a Brattleboro-based green building expert who is chairing the Ecovation project, attended with Dunne, a Hartland resident who this year mounted an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign.

“We pulled Matt into this discussion talking about a number of opportunities in the area, and the one that he was most excited about was talking about the VY site as a potential data center,” Wilson said.

Dunne made clear that he wasn’t representing his former employer, but rather was offering advice and expertise as a concerned Vermont resident. “I spent really the last 10 years working mostly on data centers and data center sitings on behalf of Google all across the country,” he said. “I learned a lot in that time.”

Assets in place

Data centers — generally defined as a large group of computer servers housed in one facility — require access to a major power source “since they use an incredible amount of electricity,” Dunne said.

Much has been made of the fact that there is a large electrical switchyard owned by Vermont Electric Power Co. near the Vermont Yankee property. “What you have as an asset is the grid infrastructure,” Dunne said.

Water is another data center asset “because of the size and scale and the cooling needs,” Dunne said. Also, rail access is important “since that’s the primary way for delivering fiber-optic connectivity — along those [rail] rights of way,” he said.

The Vermont Yankee property is situated along the Connecticut River. There’s also a rail corridor nearby, with a spur running into the plant.

“When you look at all those different pieces, that seemed pretty close to what the assets were at the VY site,” Dunne said.

Relative proximity to population centers like Boston and New York also could be a plus, he told Planning Commission members.

Dunne also offered some caveats, however.

On the economic development front, he cautioned that a data center wouldn’t bring hundreds of jobs to Vernon. “For the most part, what’s going on is racks and racks of servers that are whirring 24/7,” he said. “The jobs that they do create, however, are very high-quality jobs.”

A technology company also would likely seek tax breaks and other financial incentives to locate here, Dunne said. That would be a matter for town officials and state legislators to consider.

Land also could be an issue. Entergy is looking to sell Vermont Yankee to a company that would accelerate the decommissioning process, but even under that scenario the cleanup project isn’t due for completion until 2030.

And when that job is finished, a portion of the 125-acre Vermont Yankee site will continue to host a spent nuclear fuel storage facility. So even if the plant’s owner is willing to sell off land, not all of the property will be available for redevelopment.

A ’unique opportunity’?

Dunne said large data centers can require hundreds of acres. But he also said it’s possible to use smaller parcels or to piece together adjacent properties for such a project.

He noted that Google is developing a data center at an old coal-fired power plant site in Alabama even though the plant itself remains. And Dunne said many smaller companies — financial institutions, for instance — wouldn’t need a remote server facility as large as those built by Google.

Dunne told Planning Commission members that they may be looking at a “unique opportunity.”

“The complexities [at Vermont Yankee], at least from what I’ve seen, should not be a barrier,” he said.

The commission discussed next steps, including making preliminary inquiries with the state and Green Mountain Power. The utility’s cooperation would be critical, Dunne said, due to a data center’s need for a power-purchase agreement.

Green Mountain Power already has participated in Vernon’s community planning process. During a September meeting at the town office, utility representatives spoke about microgrids and islanding — ways for power to be produced, stored, and consumed on a smaller, more local scale.

Wilson said Green Mountain Power has been a national leader in energy storage initiatives. “So they could well take interest in a project like this if it had a storage component that might serve other needs of theirs,” he said.

O’Donnell urged quick action to determine whether a data center might be the right fit for Vernon.

“There are a lot of nuclear power plants that are going to be closing,” O’Donnell said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be the first town with a closing nuclear power plant to change the future of all of these towns that are going to be dealing soon with what we’re dealing with now?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #389 (Wednesday, December 28, 2016). This story appeared on page A6.

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