Plans afoot for Middletown data center, power plant

By Christi Milligan

Seventy acres of Middletown’s booming Westown area have been approved for a data center and co-generation plant — development that town officials say could bring more than 100 full-time jobs and as many as 2,000 construction jobs as the estimated $400 million project takes shape.

Middletown Town Council in August approved plans for the Middletown Technology Center, a 228 thousand-square-foot, 40-megawatt data center, and a natural gas co-generation plant as a redundant power source.

An electric tariff agreement as well as approval from the state Fire Marshal and Department of Natural Resources are still pending.

Some have drawn comparisons of this project to the 279-megawatt data center and co-generation facility at the STAR campus in Newark, which was scrapped in 2014 after opponents objected in part to the scale and proximity of the power plant’s location to residential neighborhoods.

But Mayor Ken Branner pointed to the differences — notably that the Middletown co-generation facility’s primary function is as an insurance measure, or backup power to the data center, and not a money source.  Branner also emphasized that the entire project is housed ample distance from residential areas.

“The difference is we don’t have to do a zoning change like Newark. It’s not in a residential area,” he said. “It’s right in the middle of a manufacturing and industrial area that we have zoned for economic development.”

The data center will include two 138 kilo-volt lines — one fed from the north and one from the south.  It’s enough power for regular operations. But for data centers, redundancy is critical.

“That’s not good enough,” said Branner, of the lines.  “If an anomaly would happen, that’s where the co-generation plant comes in.” The plant will generate 52.5 megawatts of power.

The data center and alternative energy source combination is a growing phenomenon in a digital economy, according to Tom Roberts, chairman of the Association for Data Center Management Professionals.

While using less energy today because of developments in efficiencies, Roberts said heating and cooling systems still have high demand, creating a need for an accompanying power plant.

“Another reason they [data centers] like to produce their own power is because they have control of it,” said Roberts.  “From a utility standpoint you have no control. You’re at the mercy of power systems that might not be clean power and create spikes, or sags or brownouts.”

Branner said he was contacted last year by Duffield Associates, the Delaware-based engineering firm that worked on the Newark data center. Together, they reached out to Mautom LLC (Middletown Auto Mall), the group of local investors who own the parcels of land that will house the data center and power plant.

Developer Dennis Silicato, a member of Mautom, said the group initially sought to bring a string of car dealerships to Middletown, a venture that never came to fruition after the recession.

According to Silicato, the group has sat on the parcels for the last seven years while Silicato has continued to develop around the Westown area, bringing Grottos, Home Depot and others and transforming the landscape along U.S. 301.

Pending approvals, Silicato said Mautom will become part of Cirrus LLC, the Duffield –led entity formed to develop the project.  “Right now, we just own the land,” he said.

“It’s really about location, location, location,” explained Mark F. Dunkle, an attorney with Parkowski, Guerke & Swayze working on behalf of Mautom LLC. “Its location to rail, industrial zoned properties, being in the Mid-Atlantic corridor and relatively close to I-95.”

Indeed, Silicato said he has already seen a spike in interest in the proposal for the data center was approved. But he said, that interest is dependent upon redundant power for the data center.

“You have to have redundant, uninterrupted power,” said Silicato. “People aren’t going to invest in a data center or put their information there unless they have the property security and power.”

Silicato said he’s not sure if Maucom will rent space at the data center or sell it, and he’s examining options that might include partnering with major utility to handle operations at the power plant.

In the meantime, he said he’s taking meetings with companies from Chicago, New York and Florida that are interested in exploring options with the data center.

“Everybody needs to have their information backed up,” said Silicato. “There’s a tremendous demand for this.”  n

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