COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Central Ohio is becoming a hotspot for data centers, with some of the largest companies in the world investing billions of dollars into building data operations in the areas surrounding Columbus.
The massive facilities employ relatively few people but require a lot of energy to run.
In 2022, NBC4 reported on a study that found the Midwest to have the highest concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Researchers behind the study voiced concerns that new data centers would only make matters worse.
This year, Amazon announced a $7.8 billion investment on new data center operations in Ohio over the coming years.
“Data centers and technology centers are going to fuel economic development,” said Pat Tiberi, President and CEO of the Ohio Business Roundtable, who spent his later years as a U.S. Congressman courting tech companies to invest in Ohio. “The closer you are to a data center, the better it is for you as a company, and for your customers as well.”
Environmental researchers, like Ohio State University professor Jeff Bielicki, agree that data centers are important, and that Ohio is a good place to put them.
“We do have good resources and a good landscape– from the people and the resources and the will to attract these facilities and provide jobs for people,” said Bielicki, who also serves as the research lead for OSU’s Sustainability Institute.
Bielicki said a “typical” data center can consume between 10 and 50 times the energy of a commercial building, per unit of area, or “about 16,000 60-watt light bulbs per square meter.”
While Bielicki tracks energy consumption, he said the most important thing to track is where the energy comes from. Right now, very little of it derives from renewable sources.
According to government data compiled by climate researchers at Yale University in a 2023 report, 3% of Ohio’s energy came from renewable sources in 2021.
To compare, 10% of neighboring Indiana’s energy came from renewables during the same timeframe.
“Ohio is a pretty challenging state for renewables. We have a few policies on the book that make it hard to develop for wind and solar, for example,” Bielicki said, citing issues primarily related to zoning.
Still, Amazon said it’s doing what it can to bolster Ohio’s renewable energy supply.
“We’ve already invested in 18 solar and wind projects in Ohio alone,” said Shannon Kellogg, vice president of public policy for Amazon Web Services. “Worldwide, we have now several hundred.”
While the company’s original goal was to have data operations 100% powered by renewable energy by 2030, Kellogg said the time frame has shifted.
“We’ve actually pushed that up to 2025 now,” Kellogg said. “We’re on track to meeting that goal.”
Kellogg said as more data centers are built, additional investments in renewable energy will come with that. Those investments will be separate from the data center investments.
The solar and wind farms Amazon pays for become part of the regional grid where Ohioans get power, an important distinction, Bielicki said, from companies claiming to be “carbon neutral.”
“This is where it really does matter how things are added to the grid,” Bielicki explained. “If you are just claiming the electricity from an existing wind farm, you can say that the electricity I’m using does not have carbon dioxide emissions with it, but the other electricity generation is still being emitted and it’s not changing any of the emissions.”