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September 03, 2010  BY Victoria Guida

A coalition trying to bring a data center to northern Columbia is promoting the concept of burning biomass to generate some of its electricity, thereby providing a renewable energy source and reducing the impact on the environment.

The Data Center Coalition contends that the high-tech operation — basically a warehouse full of computer servers that store enormous amounts of data and require vast amounts of electricity to run and cool — would be more attractive to operate at the Ewing Industrial Park if it were fueled by renewable biomass.

A generating facility built for a data center on the 300-acre Ewing site would burn grass or other forms of biomass such as wood or hay to supply electricity.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., hosted a biomass roundtable at MU on Aug. 21 and said Missouri has great biomass potential.

Jim Grice, a Kansas City attorney and a member of the Data Center Coalition, presented a case study on the benefits of having a data center at Ewing Industrial Park with the bonus of a renewable energy source.

Grice, in his prepared remarks, said a large corporation looking for a data center site, code-named “Big Apple,” advised the local coalition that it needed a location that could supply 100 megawatts of site-based renewable energy.

Grice said the company commissioned a study by researchers at a top-tier university that affirmed the coalition’s proposition that “biomass energy can be produced at Ewing at an affordable rate.” 

Nancy Heimann, business manager of Enginuity Worldwide LLC, said Missouri has plenty of biomass to support new industry. Enginuity is one of the main proponents of developing a “grass-fed data center.”

“Specifically looking at grasses, there’s enough fuel in several northern counties in the state of Missouri to power several hundred megawatts,” Heimann said in a phone interview. “From the perspective of a grass-fed data center … the supply certainly matches up with the demand.”

Grice said at the MU event that data centers could consume up to 10 percent of the national power grid supply by 2020.

“The conclusion appears to be clear that power generation and data transmission are the growth industries for the foreseeable future,” Grice said. “Data centers and other similar 21st-century industries have the potential to create the demand in Missouri to pull the biomass industry to new levels never imagined and put Missouri on the map as an energy provider.”

Ewing Industrial Park has been a state-certified industrial site since early 2009, which means it has all the infrastructure and zoning in place to quickly build a manufacturing facility. Although there have been legislative setbacks on the state level, the City Council helped the project along by approving two provisions in early March that would ease power costs for energy intensive businesses, such as data centers.

The Missouri General Assembly declined to pass multiple bills containing language that would provide tax exemptions to data centers, similar to exemptions received by the manufacturing industry.

Tracy King, Missouri Chamber of Commerce director of taxation and fiscal affairs, said that even without the tax exemptions, Missouri is still attractive to companies looking to build a data center because of the state’s relatively low energy costs and biomass-burning potential.

“We have an abundance of power, and part of that is the biomass piece of that,” King said. “We could very easily beat out these other states.”