Date Centers: Wyden, Facebook in Prineville Power Push
By Kim Tobin and Barney Lerten for KTVZ.COM
PRINEVILLE, Ore. — With the large amount of social networkers comes the need for a large amount of electric power, which is why the new Facebook data center in Prineville needs more space and power supply.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., believes the expansion will not only help the Crook County community, but Central Oregon as a whole.
“I made the case for how important this is to grow the Central Oregon Ecomony,” Wyden said Friday during a stop in Bend.
Wyden is pushing phase two of the expansion, which requires an upgrade of the area’s power grid. But Bonneville Power Administration and Pacific Power have said the upgrade might not be ready in time.
“To me, this is certain to be a big boost for jobs at Facebook,” Wyden said. “But I think it will also make it possible to trigger some other investments that would be a real plus for the Central Oregon economy.”
Facebook Vice President of Operations Johnathon Heiliger seems to be in agreement.
“I think Central Oregon seems like a great place to start a company,” Heiliger said. “There’s lots of resources here.”
Heiliger spoke to a crowd at the Bend Venture Conference Friday, and said the expansion of the Prineville facility is part of growing a high-tech community in Central Oregon.
“The reason we decided to double to size of the data center was really our plan from the very beginning,” Heiliger said. “It’s really just representative of our growth in the business and the growth of the users of Facebook.”
Facebook plans to build a second server building at the site by 2012, and there are reports they are planning to build a third building by 2013. Officials believe the Facebook data center could bring more jobs to the area, precisely why Wyden says is so important.
“This is a top priority for me,” Wyden said. “We’re going to stay at it until all the parties reach an agreement.”
There’s the rapidly growing power of social networking, the large amounts of electric power needed by a huge data center like the one Facebook is building near Prineville, and the political power of a U.S. senator (seeking reelection, as it so happens) to grease the skids, help clear hurdles and get things done.
All three are converging in an effort to make sure Facebook can expand its new data center, where the first phase is on track for a grand opening next April.
As it turns out, Sen. Ron Wyden’s office also indicated Thursday that an already announced Phase 2 expansion of the facility next year is likely to be followed by a third big server building at the location – if the area’s power grid can be upgraded to handle the need in time.
In a bid to make that happen, the Oregon Democrat put on his deal-maker hat Thursday and called Bonneville Power Administrator Stephen Wright and Pacific Power President Pat Rieten.
The reason for the phone call: the need to upgrade BPA’s Ponderosa Substation south of Prineville as soon as possible, to coincide with Facebook’s expansion plans.
According to the senator’s office, Facebook not only has plans to build a second server building at the site in 2012, but hopes to build a third one by 2013.
Facebook officials are tight-lipped on specifics, but Wyden’s news release claimed that three 40-megawatt requests for power supply have been made by Facebook — a 120-megawatt total that’s beyond the substation’s current capacity.
The problem, according to Wyden’s office: At present, BPA doesn’t expect to upgrade the Ponderosa substation to meet Facebook’s needs until 2014 — a year after the third phase could be ready and in need of that added power.
Wyden called Facebook’s arrival in Prineville as “one of the bright spots in the Central Oregon economy, and a harbinger of more construction and high-tech jobs to come.”
“Now,” the senator said, “Facebook’s effort to triple its commitment to the region is facing a lack of capacity at a local BPA substation.”
“I don’t want to see the need for a new substation or other infrastructure stand in the way of bringing jobs and economic development to Central Oregon,” Wyden said.
“If successful, fast-growing companies are going to locate here, then the region needs to keep pace, or risk losing these high-paying, family-wage jobs to other parts of the country,” the senator added.
Along with another year or more of 200 construction jobs at the site, an even bigger Facebook presence could mean more jobs. How many is unclear.
Facebook spokesman Bob Applegate said the firm cannot confirm any more than the 35 full-time jobs announced last year. He called the senator’s claim Thursday of nearly 150 permanent jobs down the road, if all three buildings are built, was inaccurate. (Wyden Oregon spokesman Tom Towslee said he stood by the information as provided.)
Whatever the job picture ends up being it’s clear all involved want to move heaven, earth and electrons to keep Facebook growing in Prineville, even before it moves in the row after row of computers that feed all those Facebook pages.
“There’s no firm plans” for a third server building, Applegate said. On the other hand, he added, “I think we’ve said all along about this site that one of the great attributes is the ability to expand. The only thing we’re committed to is finishing this building and starting the shell of the second.”
Applegate said Facebook representatives in Central Oregon this week met with Wyden’s staff Thursday “to bring them up to speed” on the project and the power issue.
“Clearly, bringing in power is an issue that will always mean a lot of work,” Applegate said. “To the extent the senator is ready to help us any problems,” it’s very much appreciated.
It’s apparently not a matter of available power supply, or of money, either.
“The power is there,” said Jason Carr, Prineville-Crook County economic development manager. “It’s the infrastructure that needs to be in place to deliver the power by a certain time frame.”
BPA spokesman Doug Johnson noted that “Facebook is actually picking up the bill for the additional costs” of an accelerated upgrade at a Redmond substation, for the first phase of the project.
“At this point, we’re looking into technical issues, operational issues,” for the 80 more megawatts requested, Johnson said. “We have to make sure everything’s reliable.”
“We’re optimistic,” he said. “There’s sufficient time to look at that (need) and figure out how might that be done.”
Pacific Power spokesman Tom Gauntt echoed the view that if it can be done, it will be done.
“Even though 2012, 2013 are pretty close, they are not dropping from the sky,” Gauntt said. On the other hand, he said, “We don’t want to say that we’ll build out (the grid) right now to handle 20 years of growth. Technology can change, and that means we can build better and more efficient” systems.
There’s a carrot-and-stick to the discussions, beyond the job creation and the feather in the cap Facebook in Prineville provides for the state. Carr said everyone involved knows what’s at stake, if the amount of power Facebook needs can’t be guaranteed.
If the substation upgrade takes an extra year, Carr said, Facebook could well say “that’s too long a timeframe for us — we’re going to take any expansion opportunities we have in the future elsewhere.”
Also, Towslee said it’s a bigger issue for Central Oregon’s and the state’s economic future.
“This is not just a Facebook issue — it’s a regional power issue,” he said. “We hear stories about other companies looking at Central Oregon” — also in need of large amounts of power — “and if the power is not there, they are not going to come.”
There’s more than a bit of irony that the issue of power is so key to Facebook’s future plans in Prineville. The international environmental group Greenpeace has been making waves with its “Unfriend Coal” campaign, urging Facebook to use only renewable power, and reject any Pacific Power supplies from coal-fired sources.
The company has steadfastly touted that its data center will be the most energy-efficient ever built. And Pacific Power’s Gauntt said markets are buying renewable energy credits, so apparently there’s room for discussion on where Facebook will draw its power from (and for how much).
“Obviously, it’s a customer’s decision to do that,” he said.