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Data Centers Are Creating Green Energy Booms In Unlikely Places

In areas where green initiatives usually make for bad politics, data centers are a driving force behind developing renewable energy infrastructure.

The UK Civil Service

Over the course of a decade, the state of Georgia has gone from having almost no renewable energy infrastructure to being one of the top 10 markets for solar installation in the U.S., all despite having no state-level mandates for clean energy, The Wall Street Journal reports. Data center development is at the heart of this Peach State solar boom, as hyperscalers like Microsoft and Facebook with growing footprints in the state create demand for clean energy near their campuses. 

“We are committed to bringing renewable energy close to where we operate,”  Facebook Director of Renewable Energy Urvi Parekh told the Journal. 

Although Georgia’s Republican-led state government doesn't require utilities to provide any renewable energy, the state has become a solar hotbed. The state ranks ninth in the country for solar capacity creation over the past year. Georgia Power, the state’s largest utility, has added more than 570 solar projects over the past 10 years, collectively producing over 2,000 megawatts. Smaller rural utilities have also jumped on the renewables bandwagon — solar energy providers are currently the largest taxpayers in a number of Georgia towns and counties, according to the Journal. With so much solar development, the cost of solar installation has dropped 43% from a decade ago, according to the Journal. 

It is no coincidence that the growth in renewable energy infrastructure has paralleled a surge of data center development in Georgia. Facebook, Microsoft, AWS and Google are increasingly looking to power their data centers with renewable energy to fulfill carbon neutrality pledges and other corporate environmental goals.  

The Atlanta area saw the fifth-highest data center leasing activity in the country last year, according to CBRE, and 2021 has seen hyperscalers pour development dollars into areas surrounding the city. Facebook is investing more than $3B in a data center complex in Newton County, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Microsoft announced this month that it will build more than 1M SF of data center space in Douglas County.

While data center development has created demand for renewables, hyperscalers are also investing in creating sustainable energy infrastructure directly. Most recently, Facebook is partnering with Tennessee-based Silicon Ranch Corp. to finance the creation of 434 megawatts of solar power for its Newton County data center, according to the Journal. 

The flood of investment dollars for solar projects pouring into the state has made renewable energy an unlikely focus for bright red local governments and state politicians who generally view green energy initiatives with skepticism. Republican state officials have pushed Georgia Power to expand its solar footprint in order to make Georgia more attractive for direct investment, while groups like Atlanta Tea Party Patriots have become unlikely solar advocates. 

“Don’t come into my office talking about climate change or the environment,” said Tim Echols, a longtime Republican member of Georgia’s regulatory council for utilities, according to the Journal. “Talk about new jobs, talk about low-cost energy, talk about reduction of transmission lines ... learn to speak Republican here.”

Georgia isn’t the only place where hyperscalers’ data centers have driven clean energy development in areas where the political attitude toward environmental initiatives could be viewed as apathetic at best. As Bisnow reported in July, Facebook financed a 120-megawatt solar farm in Utah to provide power to its data center campus outside of Salt Lake City, a project that increased the state’s solar capacity by more than 50%.