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As data centers swell in Ohio, facilities strain electric and water services

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted at a Google announcement in June 2024.
Sarah Donaldson
/
Statehouse News Bureau
Lt. Gov. Jon Husted at a Google announcement in June 2024.

Central Ohio has become a big hub for data center facilities, but they have the potential to put serious strain on the electric grid and other natural resources—and the state’s biggest electric provider is saying future projects need to have “more skin in the game.”

With three of its 17 data centers nationwide based in Columbus, Google pledged Tuesday to invest another $2.3 billion this year in already-announced sites.

“There's a good combination of a talent pool here, an affordable business climate, affordable land, and then it just kind of builds on itself,” said Mark Isakowitz, Google's vice president of government affairs and public policy.

Google is just one of the big names with data centers that dot central Ohio, but it wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last. Columbus is the site of 71 data centers already, across 31 tech firms, according to tracking site Baxtel. Cincinnati has 16 and Cleveland has 20.

Congressional and local leaders listened to the latest investment announcement from south Columbus in the middle of a weeklong heatwave Tuesday morning. A tent shaded attendees, as standalone air conditioners buzzed in the background. Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said that heat is one reminder of pressures the facilities can put on a region.

“From Microsoft and AWS and Meta, they all demand a lot of electricity, and they demand a lot of water for cooling on days like this, and so we have to have a balance,” Husted said. “We are literally in constant communications with AEP.”

The electricity demands are staggering. According to an International Energy Agency study, data centers could possibly account for 6% of all power use in the United States by 2026.

American Electric Power Ohio President Marc Reitter said AEP will double its peak demand in the state by 2028, largely due to data centers. Because of that, it put a pause on any new contracts with possible projects more than a year ago to avoid damaging the electric grid.

“We saw where this was headed, and we did not want to compromise the integrity of the grid,” Reitter said in an interview.

The solution, AEP has argued, is to levy a tariff on the facilities—making them commit to paying 90% per month of the energy they say they’ll use, even if they use less. That, he said, would cover the costs of constructing new extra-high voltage transmission lines to accommodate the growth.

The Data Center Coalition, an industry trade association, said it’s still reviewing the proposed plans.

In a statement, a spokesperson said it has “concerns with any utility proposal that singles out a specific industry, does not reflect a public or transparent stakeholder process, and could have a significant impact on data center and digital infrastructure investment.”

Throughout the pause, interested tech firms have been signing onto a waitlist with AEP. It’s long. “In the context of New York City, with a peak demand of 12 gigawatts, we have nearly three New York cities with interest in central Ohio,” Reitter said.

Google’s announcement wasn’t for new data centers—just investments in what already exists or is under construction. It was already under contract with AEP, meaning its latest announcement would be unaffected.

“Google's been here,” Reitter said. “They're a great customer. They have delivered on their commitments from an energy requirement perspective.”

Isakowitz said Google wants to be in on the infrastructure construction discussion.

“Because if there's more energy, central Ohio grows more, and that's good for the community,” Isakowitz said. “It's good for us, too, so part of it is we just want to lean into the issue.”

Husted said they don't have a choice. The plus side, he said, is the lack of population stress they create.

“These are the kinds of projects that don't require a lot of people to work at them on an ongoing basis, so they generate a lot of local tax revenue, they create a lot of revenue without creating a lot of demand on housing markets,” Husted said.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio is currently considering the tariff proposal, which can be read in its entirety here.

Sarah Donaldson covers government, policy, politics and elections for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. Contact her at sdonaldson@statehousenews.org.