Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A (digital) scourge on the (rural) land

James Glanz reported in the New York Times a few days ago on the local impact that server farms are having in a nonmetropolitan county in eastern Washington State.  Microsoft, Yahoo and Dell all have huge server installments in Quincy, in nonmetropolitan Grant County.  The high tech companies were attracted to the area by the cheap land, but even more attractive is the cheap electricity available from nearby hydroelectric installations on the Columbia River.

Glanz describes Quincy, population 6,750, as having "two hardware stores, two supermarkets, no movie theatre and a main drag, State Route 28, whose largest buildings are mostly food packers and processors."  The city's tallest building, he notes, is a grain elevator.  Warren Morgan, President of Double Diamond Fruit, which is one of Quincy's agricultural processing enterprises, calls the city "a farming community in the middle of a desert."

When Microsoft came to town in 2006, opening its huge operation with a grand ribbon-cutting complete with speeches by local officials, residents of Quincy were excited.  "We thought that Microsoft would bring a certain air of class to our town," a retired teacher commented.  But just three days after the ribbon-cutting, Microsoft began flexing its corporate muscle, complaining that a new substation was not being built fast enough to meet its needs and asking the local utility if Microsoft could expect reimbursements if the problem was not quickly resolved.

This excerpt from Glanz's story summarizes some of the other events that followed:
First, a citizens group initiated a legal challenge over pollution from some of the nearly 40 giant diesel generators that Microsoft's facility--near an elementary school--is allowed to use for backup power.  
Then came a showdown late last year between the utility and Microsoft, whose hardball tactics shocked some local officials.  
In an attempt to erase a $210,000 penalty the utility said the company owed for overestimating its power use, Microsoft proceeded to simply waste millions of watts of electricity, records show.  Then it threatened to continue burning power in what it acknowledged was an "unnecessarily wasteful" way until the fine was substantially cut.  
Glanz makes the point that server farms like the ones in Quincy have often previously been operated in more populous areas (and, indeed, continue to operate there, too).  In places like Santa Clara, in California's Silicon Valley, these vast data installations have encountered greater regulation of the pollution their generators create.  Companies running such installments may thus be hoping for less oversight in more rural locales.

Meanwhile, the rural locales have hoped to gain economically from these data installations, and Washington state has given the industry "lucrative tax breaks, ostensibly to promote growth in rural areas."  Glanz notes that Quincy's revenue from property taxes, which these companies do pay, has risen from $815,250 in 2005 to $3.6 million this year, funding  many infrastructure investments, including a library.  What Quincy has not gained is a lot of private wealth, which some had hoped would come from land sales and housing developments.  This is presumably because these server farms don't employ many people, a point made in this post.

Glanz closes his story with this quote from Morgan, the Double Diamond Fruit executive.  Referring to the national demand for the services that these data centers provide, Morgan commented.
I understand that it's a necessary situation for us as a society and the way we want to live.  But I don't think it's benefiting Quincy. ... I think we're taking one for the team, to tell you the truth.
And that, it seems, is the perennial story of many rural development efforts--efforts that ship the outcasts of urban economies to the country, and let the chips fall where they may.  

I guess an alternative title for this post might be: "Are server farms the 21st century equivalent of the rural prison-building boom?"

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