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Wave of diesel-backed data centers proposed in Silicon Valley

The California Energy Commission on Dec. 11 formed a committee to consider Microsoft Corp.'s application to build a new data center in San Jose that would include up to 99 MW of diesel-fired backup power.

The San Jose Data Center is one of a growing number of diesel-backed data centers proposed in Silicon Valley, where tech giants and data center operators have voiced concern about the impact of preventive power shutoffs aimed at reducing the chances of wildfires sparked by utility electric infrastructure and have rejected alternative backup technologies like fuel cells, renewable energy and lithium-ion batteries.

The agency is already reviewing the proposed 96.5-MW Sequoia Backup Generating Facility to support the Sequoia Data Center and the 80-MW Walsh Backup Generating Facility, at the Walsh Data Center, along with diesel backup facilities of up to 78.1 MW for the Mission College Data Center and 168 MW for the Laurelwood Data Center.

All of those planned projects are in Santa Clara, Calif., and have applied for exemptions from the Energy Commission's standard licensing process.

"Staff anticipates three additional [exemption] applications for data centers in the Santa Clara and San Jose area to be submitted this month and in January," Energy Commission staff member Steve Kerr said at the meeting.

Although installing diesel generators to back up new data centers seemingly contradicts the state's ambitious climate and renewable energy policies, the projects can move forward if the Commission finds that they do not create a substantial adverse impact on the environment or energy resources.

Officials at the California Air Resources Board did not immediately return a request for comment on whether the agency had concerns about any of the projects. An agency spokesperson recently said that diesel generators used by homeowners and businesses during precautionary power outages are "in no way aligned with California's air quality, public health, or climate goals."

In determining to move ahead with diesel backup, Microsoft said, the company considered various alternative power sources, including propane, gasoline, natural gas, fuel cells, renewables and battery storage.

"However, none of the alternatives can meet the basic project objectives in a feasible, cost-effective manner, nor are they necessary to lessen any of the impacts from the project," the company said in its application, filed in November.