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town serving the US furniture industry, the cacophony of noise emanating from Lenoir’s carpentry mills has long since been replaced by the barely audible hum generated by row after row of servers housed inside Google’s massive $1.2bn data centre.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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.