InvestSWVA initiative sets deadline to catalog potential data center sites

Mike Still • Oct 2, 2019 at 5:25 PM

WISE — A new Southwest Virginia economic development initiative is aiming for a February 2020 deadline to develop a catalog of potential data center sites in the region.

Members of public-private InvestSWVA met at the Inn at Wise Tuesday to announce the Feb. 21 deadline to compile the site list and to formally announce $100,000 in funding for the effort.

Project leader Will Payne of Coalfield Strategies LLC — one of Invest SWVA’s partner organizations — said that request for quotes to perform the five-phase Project Oasis could lead to a preliminary list by December of suitable sites to market to technology and data storage companies for their own data operations in the region.

Invest SWVA announced its formation Sept. 12 with the goal of attracting data center business creation in the LENOWISCO, Cumberland Plateau and Mount Rogers Planning Districts. The three districts cover 13 counties and three cities in far Southwest Virginia.

Mike Quillen, chairman of the GO Virginia Region One economic development council, and Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy Deputy Director Butch Lambert said the site study depends on what had been a point of contention for four decades between regulators and mine operators: water in underground mines.

Lambert said that DMME’s four decades of data on water levels in mine operations will now provide information on sites’ ability to provide geothermal cooling for servers and associated equipment for possible data operations.

Quillen and Lambert each presented $50,000 checks to InvestSWVA — $50,000 from GO Virginia and a combination of DMME and private matching funds.

Payne said the study will cover five areas for site classification:

— Electrical power and data fiber connectivity

— Mine pool water resources for geothermal cooling

— Engineering feasibility and design for site mine pool cooling

— Mine stability analysis for water resources

— Market analysis for the region’s attractiveness as a data center location

Will Clear, an engineering expert with DMME, said that mine pool water resources are only one potential asset of former mine lands, a primary asset for the InvestSWVA effort. Using recirculated mine pool water as a cooling source for data centers offers a second use as an energy source for those centers, since water flowing back into the mine pools could be used for secondary hydroelectric power.

Clear said that a current Wise County-based project — a solar panel field to provide additional electricity for the Mineral Gap data center — shows that abandoned mine land could accommodate solar and wind power arrays to support data centers.

Josh Levi, director of the Northern Virginia Technology Council — another partner in InvestSWVA — told an audience of local government and economic development officials from across the three planning districts that other Northern Virginia and Tidewater localities are using incentives including sales tax exemptions on computer servers to make locations more profitable.

Citing the experience of Loudon and Prince William counties in attracting data operations, Levi said the two counties each have seen between $8 and $8.50 in tax revenue for each dollar of local expenditures for the centers.

Weekly wage levels for data and technology jobs in Virginia typically are about $2,300 compared to $1,044 for other job categories, Levi said.

“Virginia has experienced tremendous success in attracting data center jobs and investment, and the data center sector is now a substantial driver of Virginia’s statewide economy,” Levi said. “There is a lot of competition nationally for data center investment. The effort by GO Virginia Region One and InvestSWVA to proactively assess, benchmark and articulate the region’s assets and capabilities is smart. It will help regional leaders determine innovative opportunities they may have to attract the industry to this region.”

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