Letter to the editor: Data centers drain electricity

We were lately in Millinocket, Maine, where one of the largest paper mills in the world closed in 2008, and wondered, after we got home, what was going to happen to the old mill site. According to ourkatahdin.com and other sources, the site has been bought by a company called Nautilus, which plans to convert it to a “data center campus that will feature 84,000 square feet of data space with plans to expand to 60 megawatts of critical IT load.” This site has water power — apparently 60 megawatts worth. This fact brought on a brief bout of math and comparisons.

A watt is a unit of electric power, often stated on electrical devices, and easily calculated as the product: volts x amps = watts. If you turn on 10 light bulbs, each drawing 100 old-school incandescent watts, you are using 1,000 watts, or 1 kilowatt (kW). If you run all 10 bulbs for an hour, you have used 1 kW-hour (kWh) of electricity, which will cost you approximately 19 cents by current rates.

Jumping large scale, the now-closed nuclear plant Vermont Yankee generated, at peak capacity, 604 megawatts (MW). If it ran 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, annual maximum output was 5.3 million MW hours, or, 5.3 terawatt hours (TWh). This output closely matched Vermont’s total electric energy use, reported by the U.S Department of Energy, as 5.3 TWh for the year 2020.

Going back to our new data center, that critical IT load of 60 MW converts to half a TWh of annual load, or 10% or all the electricity used annually in Vermont. According to NBC, “Google’s data centers around the world use about twice as much electricity as the city of San Francisco. In total, Google used 15.5 terawatt hours of electricity in 2020 and the majority of that goes to its data centers.” That is three times the total electricity used in Vermont annually.

I don’t know what to think about this, but it gives depth to the question of how we can reduce our total energy consumption.

Steve Reynolds

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