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town serving the US furniture industry, the cacophony of noise emanating from Lenoir’s carpentry mills has long since been replaced by the barely audible hum generated by row after row of servers housed inside Google’s massive $1.2bn data centre.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

Photo: Getty
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What price would the UK pay to stop Brexit?

The EU could end Britain's budget rebate and demand that we join the euro and the Schengen zone.

Among any group of Remain politicians, discussion soon turns to the likelihood of stopping Brexit. After Theresa May's electoral humbling, and the troubled start to the negotiations, those who oppose EU withdrawal are increasingly optimistic.

“I’m beginning to think that Brexit may never happen,” Vince Cable, the new Liberal Democrat leader, said recently. A growing number, including those who refuse to comment publicly, are of the same view. 

But conversation rarely progresses to the potential consequences of halting Brexit. The assumption that the UK could simply retain the status quo is an unsafe one. Much hinges on whether Article 50 is unilaterally revocable (a matter Britain might have been wise to resolve before triggering withdrawal.) Should the UK require the approval of the EU27 to halt Brexit (as some lawyers believe), or be forced to reapply for membership, Brussels would extract a price. 

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, recently echoed French president Emmanuel Macron's declaration that “there is always a chance to reopen the door”. But he added: “Like Alice in Wonderland, not all the doors are the same. It will be a brand new door, with a new Europe, a Europe without rebates, without complexity, with real powers and with unity.”

The UK's £5bn budget rebate, achieved by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, has long been in the EU's sights. A demand to halt Brexit would provide the perfect pretext for its removal. 

As Verhofstadt's reference to “unity” implied, the UK's current opt-outs would also be threatened. At present, Britain (like Denmark) enjoys the right to retain its own currency and (like Ireland) an exemption from the passport-free Schengen travel zone. Were the UK to reapply for membership under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty, it would be automatically required to join the euro and to open its borders.

During last year's Labour leadership election, Owen Smith was candid enough to admit as much. “Potentially,” he replied when asked whether he would accept membership of the euro and the Schengen zone as the price of continued EU membership (a stance that would not have served Labour well in the general election.)

But despite the daily discussion of thwarting Brexit, politicians are rarely confronted by such trade-offs. Remaining within or rejoining the EU, like leaving, is not a cost-free option (though it may be the best available.) Until anti-Brexiteers acknowledge as much, they are vulnerable to the very charge they level at their opponents: that they inhabit a fantasy world. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.