Colorado Gives OK for Construction of Unique 'Digital Fort Knox'

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Yes, you read the headline correctly. That is not a misprint or hyperbole. In fact, it may be a harbinger of data center locations and capabilities to come. The reason this is major news is because the Colorado PUC has given its seal of approval for construction of the Niobrara Data Center Energy Park. This will be a fully self-contained, secure data center site with power, water, fiber and all essential approvals. 

Located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in northern Colorado near the Wyoming board, Niobrara Data Center Energy Park lives up to its billing as big (662 acres), ambitious ($4.2 billion estimated cost) and secure (totally self-contained). There are a lot of firsts to be looked at.

A park like no other

First, let’s note that Niobrara NatGas LLC is not only building a fully contained data center but is doing so with a self-generated energy production facility built and run by it. The company has been awarded the first gas utility license in the state of Colorado in fifteen years. With regulatory blessing now in hand, this means construction can proceed on this massive data center which is capable not only of generating its own secure power, but is located in a unique area with fresh non-tributary water supply, telecommunications, electric, natural gas and fiber grids, creating a “digital Fort Knox” for the world’s next generation cloud computing.

Engineered by CH2M HILL, the park is zoned, process ready, strategically located, secure and flexible. As the graphic below indicates, it sits at a nexus of all essential infrastructures enabling conventional, cloud computing data center development and innovative Microgrid development scenarios which can provide the highest level of energy security and reliability. In addition, the site is federal cloud ready and capable of sustainable perpetual motion energy with ten to fifteen years of uninterruptable gas contracts that hedge the most expensive cost of data center operations:  energy.


Source: Niobrara Data Center Energy Park (click to enlarge image)

The details on the utilities available are impressive indeed.


Source: Niobrara Data Center Energy Park (click to enlarge image)

“In my travels I have yet to see such an innovative combined data center and energy efficient and cost saving project, much less this construction-ready,” said Michael Locatis, former CIO Department of Energy and Assistant Secretary Homeland Security for Cyber Security and Communications.

“The Niobrara Data Center Energy Park is a first of its kind design that companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, IBM or Apple should consider when looking at data centers,” added Erik Mitisek, CEO of the Colorado Technology Association.  “Because the Niobrara Data Center Energy Park is self-sufficient it means a more secure data center without the power outages.  In addition, the project takes into account all available renewable resources, including wind, solar and natural gas, maximizing both the financial and environmental impact to the purchaser.  This is truly a design for the future that will make the cloud more secure.”

“By placing power generation and power consumption (the data centers) on the same side of the Microgrid substation, we have created a ‘digital Fort Knox,’” said Craig Harrison, GM of the new gas utility.  “Unlike other technology parks, like the Reno Sparks Technology Park which was purchased by Apple, the Niobrara Data Center Energy Park features its own gas utility to serve natural gas to the power plants, fuel cell farm, direct heating, cooling and hot water within the various buildings located in the proposed complex.  We have spent three years working with state and local governments making sure we have everything in place.  The next step will be finding the right high balance sheet organization to seize on the incredible potential of the territory.”

Harrison added, “The unique location of this new gas utility is its proximity to one of the largest gas hubs in America where approximately 5-7 percent of the U.S. gas flows daily and $4 billion of gas is traded annually. The Niobrara service territory is unique because there are three major gas transmission lines within it for a redundant gas supply, which is the critical clean and firm power for the Microgrid.” The on-site gas supply lines in the project have a capacity of 1.5 billion cubic feet per day. The gas power plant could then be combined with zoning-approved renewable energies of solar, fuel cells, energy storage and wind.”

For those familiar with data center construction and operation, the ingenuity of the site of this facility is no doubt appreciated. In the U.S., it has been estimated that the price of power represents roughly 30 percent of a typical large data center’s operating cost and between 10 -15 percent of the total cost of building such a facility. 

In fact, a recent report by 451 Research says that with power costs declining in the U.S. – already priced at half the cost of power in Europe – the attraction to those looking to build next generation data centers in the U.S. is undeniable. Niobrara by creating its own gas utility to supply the park in incredibly close proximity to natural gas supplies (and for that matter and abundance of green power sources including wind and solar), makes this project almost irresistible. 

Unlike other data center projects, whose vast consumption of power has raised caution flags on construction as concerns mount as to whether residential and other business customers will be forced to compete for limited power resources and probably absorb higher rates for the building of significant amounts of additional generating capacity, Niobrara has no such worries or constraints. It will be very interesting to see who the tenants are for this “Fort Knox.” Given the security and resiliency provided it would not be surprising to see government as well as commercial interests taking a close look at the project as it moves along.



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