Interest building over data center possibilities

Rutland Herald
Friday, December 16, 2016

VERNON, Vt. — A campaign suggestion made by former gubernatorial candidate and Google executive Matt Dunne to turn the former Vermont Yankee nuclear site into a computer data center has piqued strong interest in Vernon.

Dunne, of Hartland, a former state senator from Windsor County, said Thursday he outlined the possibility for members of the Vernon Planning Commission on Wednesday night, and he said the response was strong.

Dunne, who worked for Google helping to locate just such data centers in former industrial sites, said the Vermont Yankee site had a lot going for it, even if it was on the small side.

He said that Google would soon be opening a 1,000-acre computer data center in Iowa; typically, the centers cover about 300 acres, although smaller ones are built.

In Vernon, there is only about 30 acres at Vermont Yankee immediately available, although more will become available once the reactor is decommissioned and decontaminated.

“There’s a lot of competition for these facilities,” said Dunne, who no longer works for Google. “But Vermont Yankee has some unique, very difficult-to-replicate infrastructure that could well be attractive,” Dunne said. Other keys are a good power contract with Green Mountain Power, he said, as well as tax deals with the local community.

Those features include the Vermont Electric Co. (VELCO) electrical switchyard, a rail spur, and the nearby Connecticut River, which could provide cooling water for the servers. The site is also relatively close to a large population center, he said.

“It’s a rare set of assets,” he said.

The rail would be a plus because fiber optic lines are often located in their rights of way, he said.

Dunne, who lost to eventual Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter during the August primary, said that he had suggested the server facility during the campaign when the questions turned to Vermont Yankee’s future.

Wednesday night, he was able to take his suggestions to the committee that is studying the future use of the site. Vermont Yankee shut down at the end of December 2014, and employment has dropped from a high of 650 to a current staff of about 120 people.

Patty O’Donnell, a former chairwoman of the Vernon Selectboard and a former state representative, said townspeople have been studying various future possibilities for the Yankee site, and the data center idea was the best idea so far.

“It’s something we can sink our teeth into,” she said. “The entire planning commission was all very excited.”

“He was there as a Vermonter and to give us some ideas,” O’Donnell said of Dunne’s visit. “It was pretty exciting.”

O’Donnell said that the town had looked into other power plants, including a gas-fired plant, a “mini-grid,” and other suggestions. But Dunne’s informal proposal Wednesday night really struck some nerves.

O’Donnell said that she was encouraged by the news that Entergy Nuclear wants to sell the closed nuclear plant to demolition firm NorthStar, which is partnering with other companies that have decommissioned nuclear power plants, both in the United States and Europe.