WISE — One year after its start, economic development initiative InvestSWVA and state economic agency GO Virginia have completed their first joint project — a roster of potential data center sites using underground mines for cooling and power savings.
Will Payne, project leader for the assessment, said Monday that Project Oasis — the evaluation and identification of those sites — gives Southwest Virginia governments and economic development organizations a basis for talking to prospective data center operations and competing with two areas of Virginia for those operations.
Payne said Project Oasis began with an evaluation of 12 sites within the LENOWISCO, Cumberland Plateau and Mount Rogers planning districts from Wythe to Scott counties.
The criteria for evaluating those sites included access to relatively low-cost and redundant electric power networks, proximity to underground mine sites with water for equipment cooling, proximity to telecommunications and internet connection hubs, low risk of weather events or other natural disasters, favorable business/taxation conditions, ability to be developed rapidly and quality of life for employees.
Six sites were listed as prime candidates for data center development in the Project Oasis report released Monday with three located within the LENOWISCO and Cumberland Plateau planning districts:
• Lonesome Pine Technology Park in Wise County.
• Sunbright Mine Site in Scott County.
• Red Onion Industrial Site in Dickenson County.
Payne said the Lonesome Pine and Red Onion sites had access to adequate electrical capacity and underground mine water sites, which would provide suitable equipment cooling capacity for centers with an initial 10-megawatt power demand and growth for computer servers in the 36-megawatt or more power demand.
The Sunbright site is near underground mine voids with temperatures in the 55 degree range that could provide geothermal cooling capacity, he said, and all three have at least 25 acres of developable land for construction and expansion of data centers.
Three other sites in Carroll, Wythe and Washington counties are also on the short list, Payne said, although those sites do not have access to mine-related cooling capability.
Using geothermal and mine water cooling can lower energy costs and boost a company’s return on investment, Payne said, adding that General Assembly renewable energy development legislation and solar power initiatives in the region can make energy costs another advantage for center developers.
Other sites in the area with smaller acreage but long-term development suitability for centers with a 10-megawatt power demand include the former Bullitt Mine site near Appalachia and Project Intersection in Norton, Payne said.
Site preparation for Project Intersection began earlier this year to develop as many as four industrial/commercial sites with internet and utility service as a joint effort of the Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority of Wise, Lee, Scott and Dickenson counties and Norton.
The Bullitt Mine site, closed since the mid-1990s, would have access to mine water cooling but would require long-term development.
Payne said a key to making those sites attractive to data operations is establishing tax incentive conditions competitive with special business tax rates being offered in Henrico and Chesterfield counties.
While Northern Virginia has seen several data operations locate in that region, Payne said land for such development is becoming scarcer there. Henrico and Chesterfield governments are developing business tax rates that give data operations some benefit for recurring expenses as they replace and update server equipment in cycles as short as three years.
“We need to have a separate data center classification for business property taxes here,” Payne said.
Labor and land costs in Southwest Virginia can also make the region more attractive than the urban Henrico and Chesterfield county areas, Payne said, and The University of Virginia’s College at Wise has a software engineering program that can mesh with data companies’ labor needs.
Payne said the Oasis project has drawn on help from the main electric suppliers to the region — Dominion Energy, Appalachian Power, TVA and Kentucky Utilities — in developing criteria and identifying sites near adequate power grids. The Northern Virginia Technology Council has assisted InvestSWVA in Oasis and will continue advising the project, he added.
“We have leads interested in what the region has to offer,” Payne said. “Over the next two months, we’ll have an intensive meeting phase with developers, data companies and local government based on the sites we’ve identified.”