Virginia industrial park wants to power DCs with mini nuclear reactors, clean hydrogen
It's buzzword bingo: The datacenter sustainability edition
Green Energy Partners (GEP) has tapped IP3 International to help realize its dream of a massive datacenter campus in Virginia powered entirely by small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) and hydrogen gas generators.
The joint venture between the two companies will see the formation of a 641-acre industrial park located in Surry County, Virginia, called the Surry Green Energy Center (SGEC). Situated in close proximity to the Surry Power Station's two 800MW reactors, GEP and IP3 hope to attract datacenter operators to set up shop during the first phase of the project.
"We're going to create a datacenter park first, and that datacenter park will get power from the local utility, and we will build lots, and we will sell those lots to datacenter providers," IP3 CEO Michael Hewitt, whose company specializes in supporting the development of nuclear power plants in the US and Europe, told The Register. "We see that as a very lucrative investment, particularly when you look at the going rate for a datacenter lot in, say, Northern Virginia."
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If successful, these datacenters will serve as the customer base for private investment in the development of SMRs on the site during the second phase of the project.
Nuclear powered datacenters
If you're not familiar, SMRs are essentially miniaturized nuclear reactors designed to be scaled out as additional power is required. As you might expect, these reactors produce considerably less power — on the scale of megawatts versus the gigawatts often produced by the typical pressurized water reactors. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), depending on the SMR in question, the reactors can generate anywhere from tens to hundreds of megawatts of electrical output.
For example, NuScale's reactors, which received Nuclear Regulatory Commission certification earlier this year, are rated to produce about 50MW of power a piece. We're told that's enough capacity for a decently sized datacenter campus. However, recent trends around the adoption of AI accelerators may change that.
The idea of using SMRs to power datacenters is by no means a new concept. We spoke with analysts at Omdia last year about the potential for these miniaturized nuclear reactors to alleviate pressure on local utilities, particularly in power-challenged regions, like Virginia.
"There are a number of technologies that are in development around the SMR space, and light water reactor space, and in what they call the advanced modular space," Hewitt said, adding that for any reactor design to be considered it'll need to have gone through the NRC licensing process.
All told, GEP and IP3, expect they'll need somewhere between four and six SMRs, each capable of producing 250MW of power. However, Hewitt admits this is ultimately going to depend on the technology employed.
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As for when this might happen, Hewitt conservatively hopes to see the site running on SMRs within a decade.
If and when SMRs have been deployed on site in adequate numbers, GEP and IP3 plan to use thermal energy from them to facilitate the electrolysis of water into clean hydrogen. This hydrogen could be used to fuel backup generators on site or exported to support the state's power grid.
Hydrogen as a fuel for backup power is yet another technology being explored as an alternative to diesel generators. As we reported last fall, Equinix is already testing the tech in collaboration with the National University of Singapore.
"We believe that this location is ideal for the logistics of hydrogen shipping and distribution," Hewitt said.
If all this sounds too good to be true, that's because there's a lot that needs to happen before GEP's vision can become a reality. This is part of the reason the two companies are hedging their bets on datacenters from the get go, Hewitt explained. "Let's say that the nuclear power part of it kind of falls apart in terms of an opportunity; we still have a datacenter site that makes money and has a great client."
Of course if SMRs don't pan out, clean hydrogen generation at the site is unlikely to either.
Bring your own power plant takes off
The SGEC site is hardly the first datacenter operation to suggest bringing its own power plant. In July, Microsoft received approval to power its datacenters in Dublin's Grange Castle Business Park using its own private gas-powered power plant.
The plant, estimated to cost €100 million ($108 million), will reportedly be capable of generating 170MW of power from 22 generators when complete. Long term, the software giant claims it'll run its operations on fusion power courtesy of Helion — assuming they can ever make it work.
Amazon has also faced challenges securing adequate power for its Oregon datacenter developments. In February, it was revealed that AWS planned to transition some of its datacenters to natural gas fuel cells.
That project calls for a 75-megawatt fuel cell installation, which will power three datacenters. We're told the fuel cells used for the project are capable of running on a mix of natural gas and hydrogen, but, for the time being, they will run on natural gas. ®