U. of Delaware Pulls Plug on Controversial Power Plant and Data Center

Mark Makela for The Chronicle

Demonstrators protested in April against a proposed natural-gas-fueled power plant that would have been part of a data-center project at the university’s Science, Technology, and Advanced Research Campus.
July 11, 2014

The University of Delaware announced on Thursday that it had terminated a lease agreement with a company that planned to build a data center along with a controversial power plant on the university’s Science, Technology, and Advanced Research Campus.

The university’s president, Patrick T. Harker, said that while he had consulted with the Board of Trustees, he had based his decision on a report by a campus working group that had recommended against continuing to collaborate with the Data Centers LLC. The report concluded that the $1.1-billion proposal by the company, known as TDC, was not "consistent with a high-quality, first-class science and technology campus."

Charles G. Riordan, vice provost for research and chairman of the working group, said that "TDC’s plans became much more about the power plant and power generation and less about the data center." He said that the university would still like to bring a data center to the vast property that Delaware calls its STAR Campus, but "the power plant and the project, as conceived by TDC, was not in the best interest of the university and the community."

The proposal for the natural-gas-fueled power plant had drawn significant opposition both from residents of Newark, Del., and from the Faculty Senate, which voted, 43 to 0, to recommend against building the data center if it was accompanied by a fossil-fuel power plant of any size. The professors raised public-health concerns about the proposed facility and argued that the power plant would be inconsistent with the environmental goals of the university, which is respected as a leader in alternative-energy research.

Eugene Kern, chief executive of the Data Centers, did not respond on Thursday to telephone and email messages seeking comment. But in May, after the Faculty Senate’s vote, he said in an interview that his company’s lease with the university would not allow officials to block construction of the power plant.

"I have invested millions of dollars" in the project so far, Mr. Kern said at the time. "If they’re willing to repay my money, then sure, I’d move on if they wanted me to."

Legal Cover

Mr. Harker declined to speculate on whether the lease’s termination might result in legal action against the university.

"That’s up to Mr. Kern," Mr. Harker said. "I’m not going to comment on what he will or won’t do."

Mr. Riordan said he was not at liberty to share the lease publicly, but he suggested that, Mr. Kern’s opinion notwithstanding, the document provided legal cover for the university.

As the working group’s report spells out, he said, "we did have the right to review the plans and make sure they’re consistent with the long-term development of the STAR Campus." Formerly a Chrysler assembly plant, the property is now home to a fuel-cell manufacturer, the College of Health Sciences, and other tenants, but the university continues to try to lure innovative partners to the site.

Among its objections to TDC’s plan, the working group asserted that:

  • The proposed cogeneration power plant, at 279 megawatts, would have been at least twice as large as any similar on-site facility in the United States for powering a data center.
  • Information provided by TDC about its proposed facility was "scant," and the company "stated that its plans continue to be in the conceptual rather than design stage and subject to change."
  • TDC’s application to the state for an air-emissions permit revealed "a lack of rigor in preparation" and contained "important inconsistencies."

At the end of the day, Mr. Harker said, the university took time to deliberate on its decision and the process resulted in "a very robust conversation with people on both sides."

He said he continued to be optimistic that the STAR Campus would add more tenants and bring more jobs to Delaware—a key concern of state legislators, one of whom briefly proposed withholding funds from the university unless it pursued the TDC plan. The university is working to bring a train station to the campus that would serve Newark and provide enhanced regional and Amtrak passenger-rail service, he said.

"This is a marathon, not a sprint," Mr. Harker said. "We have 272 acres that we are developing over an extended period of time. There will be more opportunities and more jobs."