Labrador data company 'thrilled' by Muskrat Falls rate mitigation plan, but says details are sparse

Your first response to reading through the newly released Liberal plan outlining ways to mitigate Muskrat Falls power rates might not be a flush of excitement.

But then again, you're not James Goodwin. 

"It really did take us by surprise," the CEO of Great North Data said of the moment he and his colleagues spotted a section that recommends investing in more data centres for Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We were thrilled to see it. We were talking to anybody who would listen to us about this since we founded the company six years ago."

Data centres, like the two Great North Data run in Labrador, are electricity-guzzlers.

The centres house thousands and thousands of computers and servers that suck up power around the clock to process all things technological, whether it be bitcoin mining, artificial intelligence algorithms, or downloading the daily data reports that self-driving cars spew out into the technosphere every single day.

"That is massive and massive amounts of processing," said Goodwin, estimating his centres sucked up $1 million worth of electricity last year.

 "With our business, we use power 24-7, 365."

Bailey White/CBC

Cheap power, cold climate

That sounds like a simple answer to the continually complicated question of how to help get Newfoundland and Labrador ratepayers off the hook for skyrocketing electricity costs that loom ahead once Muskrat Falls comes online.

The Liberals' rate mitigation plan, conveniently timed just days before calling a provincial election, highlighted such data centres as eating up $35.5 million in electricity revenue.

"The data centre sector … has been growing significantly in Labrador," stated the plan, which pledged to work with Nalcor and NL Hydro to seek expressions of interest to further develop the area. 

With our business, we use power 24-7, 365. - James Goodwin

Goodwin definitely has an interest, as do the numerous companies he said have contacted him from around North America, desperate for somewhere to put their servers that sounds … exactly like Labrador.

"They're looking to relocate their artificial intelligence and 3D processing to cheaper jurisdictions. They're looking for cheaper power, and a colder climate," he told CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning.

Such companies long for lengthy winters like Labrador's to help offset air conditioning costs, a necessity for data centres filled with computer networks running at full tilt and at risk of overheating.

Reuse Muskrat Falls?

Great North Data has a spot singled out for its next big investment, if it can get the right officials on board: Muskrat Falls itself.

"Our pitch for Muskrat Falls has been, let us use part of the construction camp when they demobilize after construction finishes. We'll take the buildings that they have there, convert them into data centres," he said, adding that proximity would eliminate the need for additional power line infrastructure.

"We're definitely interested in scaling up and we definitely have the interest of backers and clients who want to see a project like this go ahead."

Apparently, Goodwin isn't the only one looking to scale up.

"There are presently 320 megawatts of new outstanding service requests from data centres in Labrador," stated the plan. The current Labrador data centres use only about 12 megawatts of power.

Goodwin said he had heard of about 100 such data centre applications awaiting a look over from NL Hydro. 

Submitted

He said Great North Data filed a "very substantial" request for more power from Nalcor, "but we've heard nothing back on it."

Goodwin said his company is looking for more information about how it would apply for more power as proposed in the rate mitigation plan, but he may have to wait a little longer.

The Liberals plan remains just that, as the party has swung into full campaign mode, with the provincial election set for May 16.

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