North Carolina has several programs to lure businesses to our state. While environmental impacts are supposed to be considered before incentives are awarded, a company’s energy consumption needs more scrutiny. Data centers, such as those of Google, Apple and Facebook, are coming to NC because of the low cost of electricity, mostly due to the burning of coal. But a closer look at the hidden costs of burning coal shows that coal is far from cheap for the residents of NC.
One of the most serious impacts of burning coal is the human health consequences. Last year, the Clean Air Task Force (CATF)  estimated health effects, using a methodology approved by both the US EPA and the National Academy of Sciences. NC ranked 4th in the country – it is estimated that in 2010 681 people would die prematurely, 487 would be hospitalized and 912 would have heart attacks due to particles emitted from coal-fired power plants in our state. Children, the elderly, people with respiratory diseases and those living downwind of coal plants are most at risk.
For the whole country, CATF estimated that these health effects, including visits to the hospital and emergency room, asthma and heart attacks, chronic bronchitis, lost work days and early deaths were valued at more than $100 billion per year.
Now back to the data centers that elected officials are so eager to bring to NC. Data centers use lots of electricity.
Together, Google in Caldwell County, Apple in Catawba County and Facebook in Rutherford County, are estimated to need over 200 megawatts of electricity. A megawatt can power approximately 1000 homes. So at the low end, the three companies combined will use enough electricity to power 200,000 homes. The companies could receive over $300 million in financial assistance – such as tax breaks or exemptions, grants and more – all for about 500 new jobs – while North Carolinians continue to get sick from the burning of coal.
NC needs to review its financial incentives programs. First and foremost, we should be asking whether Fortune 500 companies should be awarded these deals. Next, environmental issues require more detailed conditions, just as the state has wage standards and health insurance conditions. Companies should have to project their energy needs for the next 10 years, maintain a rigorous energy efficiency program, have their own clean energy goals and actively support state efforts to move toward clean energy. If the IT sector is going to be a larger part our future in NC, that future cannot move forward with dirty coal as its energy source.