Data center, hydrogen fuel hub powered by small nuclear reactor to bring more than 2,000 new jobs to Surry

Published 4:42 pm Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Resulting tax revenue ‘will change Surry County,’ company spokesman says


Surry County will be home to the United States’ first-of-its-kind combination data center and hydrogen fuel hub that’s expected to generate 2,000 to 3,000 new jobs, a developer of carbon-free energy plants announced Wednesday.

Middleburg-based Green Energy Partners LLC has secured 641 acres adjacent to Dominion Energy’s Surry nuclear power plant to build a 1-gigawatt data center and hydrogen hub.

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Bill Puckett, vice president of strategic development for GEP, confirmed to The Smithfield Times on April 12 that the company will break ground on the data center component within the next 18 months, assuming the project receives all required approvals from Surry County’s government.

GEP is still calculating exactly how much tax revenue the development will bring the county, but Puckett estimates it will be “significant” and “will change Surry County.” The influx of thousands of new employees alone could potentially reverse a 20-year population decline in the rural county of roughly 6,500 residents.

Data centers are physical buildings that house computer infrastructure needed to run file-sharing and internet-based services. According to Puckett, they require large amounts of electricity to maintain 24-7 operations and cooling systems. Data centers, he said, represent roughly 20% or more of Virginia’s total statewide power usage.

The Surry Green Energy Center, as the project has been named, will initially be connected to Dominion’s power grid, but the plan is to eventually power the facility on-site with four to six small, modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “all of the above” 2022 energy plan called for at least one SMR in Virginia within the next decade.

The United States has used small, modular reactors on nuclear-powered naval vessels for decades, Puckett noted, but to date hasn’t used them to power towns and cities on land.

These reactors would likely use tristrucural isotropic, or “TRISO,” fuel pellets. These pellets encase nuclear fuel in titanium and other materials and are “a little bit larger than a golf ball,” Puckett said. The reactors themselves would be roughly the size of a tractor-trailer, minus the front cab, and would produce enough energy to power a city of 100,000 people.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, TRISO fuels are structurally more resistant to corrosion, oxidation and high temperatures than traditional reactor fuels. Each particle acts as its own containment system.

“Simply put, TRISO particles cannot melt in a reactor and can withstand extreme temperatures that were well beyond the threshold of current nuclear fuels,” the Department of Energy’s website states.

Those four to six SMRs, coupled with what’s called an “electrolyzer,” Puckett said, can create hydrogen fuel, which will power the data center’s backup generators. Each SMR will generate roughly 250 megawatts. The hydrogen fuel hub can also be used to “create other products as well, traditionally created by fossil fuels.”

GEP is still interviewing businesses that would utilize the data center and expects to lease server space to 30 to 40 companies. The SMRs will likely come online within the next 10 to 12 years, Puckett said.

GEP’s search for a home for its plans for the nation’s first combination data center-hydrogen hub took two years and spanned the East Coast. What finally drew them to Surry, Puckett said, was the county’s existing infrastructure, electrical grid and access to fiber-optic high-speed internet.

Surry County completed a buildout of universal fiber-to-the-home, the industry gold standard in high-speed internet access, in 2021 by partnering with Dominion and Prince George Electric Cooperative subsidiary Ruralband. Dominion served as the “middle mile” provider, allowing Ruralband to lease new electrical infrastructure to expand its network so that now, anyone in Surry who wants a fiber-to-the-home connection can purchase one.

“Surry County’s optimal location lets companies easily locate in the nation’s first green integrated energy center,” said County Administrator Melissa Rollins in a company news release. “The county’s strategic investments in growing its energy workforce have made it even more attractive to companies who want to expand and grow in a. Community which embraces sustainable carbon-free energy.”

“Locations like this 641-acre green energy hub will protect millions of acres of forestry, wildlife, and human lives by reducing carbon in our atmosphere, ” said Green Energy Partners of Virginia CEO Jack Andrews in the news release.

The project needs formal approval from the Surry County Board of Supervisors before it can proceed, but “all indications are good,” Puckett said.