Program identifies sites suited for data center development

As a cooperative, Great River Energy maintains a deep commitment to the communities it serves, which cover more than two-thirds of Minnesota. This commitment includes supporting the economic vitality of those communities through a variety of resources such as financing, site selection assistance and infrastructure development. These services provide opportunities for rural Minnesota that may not occur without the aid of an electric cooperative.

Great River Energy’s economic development services team continuously looks for ways to spark growth in its member cooperatives’ service territories and, in 2013, identified data centers as an opportunity to do just that. Data centers are good customers for electric cooperatives in that they draw electricity in a steady, consistent manner, which helps the co-op with resource planning and ensures existing assets are put to the highest and best use.

After hosting a “Data Center 101” training seminar in 2013 for its 28 members and community economic development partners, Great River Energy’s economic development services team discovered that existing programs for site assessment in Minnesota did not have a strong enough focus on data centers. So they created one.

Enlisting the assistance of Deloitte Consulting’s Real Estate & Location Strategy practice, the team designed a data center site assessment and tiered designation program that launched in 2014. The consultants helped establish evaluation criteria and program parameters, then the Great River Energy team worked with its member cooperatives to identify, evaluate and rank developable sites in their area.

“This project has the potential to impact the communities where these sites are located, and the economic development organizations that are representing these sites to different site selectors and businesses,” said Erin Sparks, economic development services specialist at Great River Energy. “These designations really help to make the land more marketable and an easier sell for potential projects that are looking at the region.”

The group was “thoroughly impressed” with the response it received from communities and organizations that submitted sites for inclusion in the program.

“The list of criteria was very involved and required a lot of time as well as a financial commitment from those entities, and a lot of detailed work went into our review,” Sparks said.

In the end, sites were narrowed down to a handful that the team felt were ready for an on-site visit with Great River Energy and Deloitte consulting representatives. Following daylong visits in each community, including a tour of available sites and meetings with community leaders and infrastructure providers, the group evaluated certain sites as “primary” or “secondary,” based on their ability to meet the necessary criteria. Primary sites meet or exceed all program requirements while secondary sites show strong potential but require additional or updated information.

All of the primary and secondary sites are well positioned to take advantage of the many reasons Minnesota is viewed as a prime location for data center development: state sales tax exemption, highly reliable but low-cost energy and a currently underserved data center market. The state’s colder climate also cuts down on annual cooling costs – one of the largest expenses for data centers.

The Economic Development Association of Minnesota (EDAM) recognized Great River Energy’s economic development services department for its innovation, professionalism, collaboration and impact in creating this program. The team – which includes Tom Lambrecht, manager; Jeff Borling, economic development services lead; and Sparks – was presented with EDAM’s Economic Development Marketing Award earlier this year. The award recognizes an organization’s efforts in economic development marketing for areas such as talent attraction, business recruitment, tourism, community/regional branding or other marketing priorities.

“We’ve been able to do a lot of good with this program so far, especially in understanding how it can help us attract additional data centers to Minnesota,” Lambrecht said.

To view the list of sites currently available for data center development as well as their specs, visit econdev.greatriverenergy.com/datacenters.