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Tina Casey headshot

Switch Drives 179 MW of Solar to Nevada Data Center

By Tina Casey

Numerous political observers have remarked upon President Trump's efforts to roll back policies and programs of the Obama administration, especially when it comes to energy. However, the transition to renewable energy is not stopping. A case in point is a data center in Nevada, which is now using power from two massive new solar farms thanks to an Obama-era program that set aside federal land for solar energy development.

Switch makes the switch to renewable energy

The two solar farms have a combined capacity of 179 megawatts, which is no small potatoes. Located in Clark County, they are named Switch Station 1 and Switch Station 2, in honor of the Switch data center that will receive renewable electricity from the two farms.

The Switch company briefly crossed the TriplePundit radar back in 2015, when we noted that it operated the single largest collection of data centers in the world, located in Las Vegas.

That puts Switch front and center in the issue of data center sustainability. Energy consumption by data centers has become a major point of concern, especially with the advent of cloud computing.

Leading companies like Amazon have been taking steps to reduce their data center energy use and use more renewable energy, and many of them are turning to Switch for help. Here's an explainer from Switch:

The Switch Sustainability Initiative has driven all Switch data centers in North America to be run by 100% renewable energy. Switch’s issued and pending patent innovations in design, power, cooling and density resulted in significant efficiencies and outstanding annual PUE ratings.

Solar power and jobs, jobs, jobs

Aside from their size, the two new solar farms are significant because they indicate how states like Nevada can grow jobs in the tech sector without new coal or nuclear power plants.

In a statement marking the official commissioning of the two solar farms, Clark County Chairman Steve Sisolak affirmed the role of renewables in economic growth:

The Switch Station solar projects are a great example of how our commitment to renewable energy has helped to stimulate economic growth in the County. The solar projects created hundreds of construction jobs and economic benefits, and the use of our abundant natural resources are fueling long-term, high-tech job creation centers such as Switch.

It's not just Clark County. Nevada's renewable energy industry was virtually nonexistent ten years ago, and now it is a solar power hotspot. The Solar Energy Industries Association ranks the state 4th out of 50 in installed solar capacity. The job count for the state's solar sector is currently topping 8,000, and SEIA projects continued growth over the next five years.

The availability of clean power in Nevada has attracted top shelf tech companies like Tesla and Google, which is anticipating building a new data center without delaying its renewable energy commitment. The Google property, located near Reno, is also being talked up as a location for testing the company's Waymo autnomous vehicle initiative.

Zombie clean power projects rise from the earth to haunt Trump

The Switch solar farms were developed by EDF, which notes that these are "first-ever utility-scale solar power plants to be built in one of the Bureau of Land Management’s Solar Energy Zones."

The Solar Energy Zones were launched under the Obama administration 2013, with the aim of streamlining leases for renewable energy development on federal lands.

Clean power or not, renewable energy development is not free of impacts, and the SEZ initiative was controversial. Nevertheless, the Bureau of Land Management designated a score of SEZ's on federal land. Five are located in Nevada and the others are distributed among Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

As of 2016, some of the lease auctions for the zones did not receive any interest. The Dry Lake Zone in Clark County was one that did, with the result that three projects were awarded leases for solar development in 2015.

No word on what happened to all of the projects, but the two Switch solar farms were approved for construction in 2016 under the developer First Solar, and acquired by EDF in the summer of 2017 while work was still under way.

The acquisition sparked this comment from EDF:

The acquisition of Switch Station 1 and Switch Station 2 marks EDF RE's entry into Nevada, a state with world-class solar resources where we plan to build additional projects in the coming years...

Last fall the Bureau of Land management signaled a policy change that could throw obstacles in the path of additional SEZ development. However, the SEZ's represent just one opportunity among many for renewable energy development, Trump or no Trump.

Trump's own Energy Secretary recently fast-tracked a major new hydropower transmission line for New England, which will help put a final nail in the coffin of coal power for that region.

In another striking example, states along the entire Atlantic coast are on the verge of exploiting their vast offshore wind energy potential.

As for EDF, the company's plans for Nevada are the tip of a renewable energy iceberg. EDF foresees $3 billion in new capital investments across the country within the next several years.

That investment outlook presents an interesting contrast with AT&T, which has faced blowback over linking its own $1 billion investment pledge to passage of the new tax bill championed by President Trump -- but that's a whole 'nother can of worms!

Image (screenshot): Data center via Switch.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey