How Google is changing small town America

An injection of renewable power.

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town serving the US furniture industry, the cacophony of noise emanating from Lenoir’s carpentry mills has long since been replaced by the barely audible hum generated by row after row of servers housed inside Google’s massive $1.2bn data centre.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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Julian Turner works for NRIdigital, part of Progressive Media.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.