Editorial – Surry data center shouldn’t be  controversial

Published 5:31 pm Tuesday, February 27, 2024

A combination data center and hydrogen fuel hub stands to permanently transform Surry County from an economically challenged rural county to a thriving center of technology and green energy.

County officials, in answering citizen questions about the Hog Island project, needn’t let it become a source of division among citizens or elected leaders. Properly vetted, the facility could be a reason for celebration by all but those who don’t want change of any kind in Surry.

As it stands, there are many unanswered questions about Green Energy Partners’ plan to build America’s first combination data center and hydrogen fuel hub adjacent to Dominion Energy’s nuclear power plant.

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Supervisors Amy Drewry and Timothy Calhoun wanted to get a few more facts before voting to rezoned the proposed 600-acre project site, but colleagues on the five-member Board of Supervisors rammed through approval on a 3-2 vote this month.

“We have time to do this; it’s not that I’m against the project,” Drewry said at the meeting. Calhoun seconded Drewry’s unsuccessful motion to table a decision.

It’s not too late for county leadership to be fully transparent with the citizenry about what is known, and to obtain answers to questions not yet addressed. 

Green Energy Partners has floated some compelling numbers: a $6.45 billion investment in Surry over a 13-year buildout culminating in 1,300 permanent jobs, half with six-figure salaries, and $74 million in annual tax revenue for county government.

We’d love to see those projections come to fruition. But we don’t blame county residents who are a little skeptical.

Already, job estimates are down from 2,000 to 3,000 when the project was announced last year. It turns out that the original number included temporary jobs related to construction. And the core technology involved — small, modular nuclear reactors, known as SMRs — has a lot of regulatory hurdles to clear before being ready for deployment.

“This is not a technology that’s available as I stand here tonight,” a company official acknowledged at the Board of Supervisors meeting. “These are the small reactors that have been used since the 1950s on submarines and naval vessels without any sort of incident, and they’re under study and development for terrestrial use, but we’re seven or 10 years away from that.”

Green Energy is proposing 19 data centers on a 3 million-square-foot campus. In addition to more than doubling the budget of county government, the project would almost certainly reverse a long trend of declining population and substandard income. According to census data, Surry household incomes were 21% below the state median as of 2020.

It’s hard to not get excited about the potential, but county leadership must keep a level head, hold the project developer accountable and, most importantly, keep citizens informed all along the way.