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How Google is changing small town America

An injection of renewable power.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

In director Peter Bogdanovich’s elegiac 1971 movie The Last Picture Show, the aging local movie theatre serves as a metaphor for the cultural and economic decline of a fly-blown north Texas town during the 1950s.

On the big screen at the Royal, Westerns like Red River mythologise the Lone Star state’s outlaw history, but the inhabitants of Anarene prefer the anodyne game shows playing on their new-fangled TV sets, a taste of the dull conformity that will come to define the Eisenhower years. Fast forward six decades, and technology is once again transforming America’s rural heartland.

Nestled in the shadow of the iconic Blue Ridge mountains is the unassuming backwater of Lenoir, North Carolina. Once a flourishing factory town serving the US furniture industry, the cacophony of noise emanating from Lenoir’s carpentry mills has long since been replaced by the barely audible hum generated by row after row of servers housed inside Google’s massive $1.2bn data centre.

Constructed in 2007, and home to 110 employees and contractors, the 215-acre facility – one of six such server farms dotted around the US – houses computer systems that support Google Search, Gmail, Google+ and YouTube.

Now, the next chapter in Lenoir’s transformation into a 21st-century internet hub is being written as Google invests a further $600m to expand the data centre’s capacity.

More important, however, is the global IT giant’s collaboration with Duke Energy, the largest electricity utility provider in the US, on a new project that gives corporates the option of offsetting some or all of their energy consumption with renewable power purchased directly from utilities in North Carolina.

This more scalable approach will take the form of "renewable energy tariffs" that may one day be made available to all Duke Energy customers in the US.

So, why haven’t electric utilities offered corporate serious alternatives to "dirty" energy such as coal, nuclear and gas before now?

"In many parts of the US, the electric utilities run a monopoly service and the rates they charge are regulated by a state utility commission," says Michael Terrell, Google’s senior policy counsel, energy and sustainability. "The commissions have never asked for them to create this kind of service – until now, people have tended to just be interested in reliable power at the lowest cost possible."

There are signs that this is changing. Apple powers its data centre in Maiden, about 30 miles from Lenoir, with a 100-acre solar farm and has also built an on-site 10MW fuel cell installation that converts methane gas from landfills into stored electricity.

To attract Google to North Carolina in 2007, state officials controversially offered 30 years of state and local tax breaks potentially worth more than $260m. In light of this, and ongoing accusations of tax evasion, the internet giant has been quick to allay concerns that by offering new tariffs to big business, Duke Energy will be forced to shift costs to residential customers.

"We can’t offset our way out of climate change – eventually we need new sources of power,” says Terrell. "What we are doing with Duke is creating a new class of renewable energy service."

In doing so, Google is also transforming the town of Lenoir into a living monument to the accelerated pace of technological change that has characterised post-war American life and industry.