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STEVENSON, Ala. — Goodbye coal. Hello Google.

Alabama officials Wednesday welcomed a $600 million plan by Google to build a data processing center as a replacement for a soon-to-be-shuttered coal plant here.

Google, the online colossus that ranks as one of the world’s most valuable companies, announced Wednesday it will start construction next year on a massive data center at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Widows Creek Fossil Plant, a 63-year-old coal-fueled power plant that’s due to be retired soon.

The data processing center, one of only 14 worldwide for Google, will create 75 to 100 permanent jobs in North Alabama’s Jackson County with an average salary of $45,000, state officials say.

It’s a Cinderella story for nearby Stevenson, a town of only 2,000 residents. County schools will get several million in property tax revenue. And it’s a big boost to Alabama’s high-tech sector, Gov. Robert Bentley said.

“Six hundred million dollars is a lot of money, folks,” Bentley said at an afternoon press conference in the coal plant’s parking lot underneath a white tent to shield participants from the 93-degree heat.

Officials in Alabama and at TVA kept quiet about Google’s expansion plans — unlike the widely publicized competition in 2011 among 1,100 communities to be the first to get Google Fiber high-speed Internet, which the Kansas City metropolitan area won.

TVA, which randomly generates code names for projects, called the Google data center “Project Zebra.” Jackson County Economic Development Authority officials were sworn to secrecy under a non-disclosure agreement, said Chairman David Campbell.

Why Jackson County?

The Widows Creek site, combined with power rate breaks from TVA and investment and tax incentives from Alabama, offers Google low-cost power, plentiful water supplies for cooling and data connections along transmission and rail lines at the site.

But the symbolism of building the data facility at the old coal plant also appealed to Google officials.

Google has been “carbon-neutral” since 2007, said Gary Demasi, Google’s director of data center energy and location strategy. So Google plans to build an energy-efficient data center from the ground up on 360 acres on the coal plant’s property and tap into renewable energy offered by TVA, which has hydroelectric, wind and solar plants — in addition to coal and nuclear.

“The idea of repurposing a former coal-generating site and powering our new facility with renewable energy, especially reliable, affordable energy that we can count on 24/7 with the existing infrastructure in place was attractive,” Demasi said.

Photo by
Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Google might build new solar or wind power facilities that would connect to TVA’s power grid.

“It’s very possible that we could,” Demasi said. “We’ll work very closely with TVA on developing that power.”

California’s glitzy Silicon Valley seems a world apart from Jackson County, where a driver on the backroads passes rail cars full of coal and mobile homes with clothes hanging out to dry. But TVA has a history of supporting rural, Appalachian communities, TVA President Bill Johnson said.

“The real mission isn’t electricity; the real mission is to improve the quality of life of the people who live here,” Johnson said, citing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose administration founded TVA.

“Google could have located their next data center anywhere in the world, but they chose this site,” Johnson said.

Google gets incentives

Alabama officials have been trying to recruit a major data processing center to the state for the past three years since the Legislature in 2012 passed the Alabama Data Processing Center Economic Incentive Enhancement Act.

Google will receive an investment credit of up to $50 million, spread over 10 years, from the state of Alabama to offset a portion of its income and utility tax liabilities, the governor’s office said. Google also will receive state non-educational sales tax abatements of $20 million and non-educational state property tax abatements of $11.08 million, the governor’s office said.

“[The Jackson County Economic Development Authority] did grant some tax abatements, of course, but not when it comes to the schools,” Campbell said. While he didn’t know the exact figure, he said, Jackson County Schools District should see its property tax revenue increase by “several million dollars.”

Once the facility’s up and running, Google will offer community grants to support science and technology education, carbon reduction and access to the Internet.

Hiring won’t start until 2016. Google says it will hire full-time employees and contractors, including computer technicians, engineers and various food services, maintenance and security roles.

Widows Creek plant once employed more than 500 workers and was one of TVA’s biggest power plants. Widows Creek now has only about 90 employees left operating the lone Unit 7 boiler. Those jobs will be phased out as TVA ceases power production and cleans up the riverfront site near Stevenson.

To reduce smog emissions, cut carbon releases and diversify its power generation, TVA is or has retired 33 of the 59 coal units it once operated, including eight units at Widows Creek.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at or or or 423-757-6651.

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