The New Secret Weapon in Economic Development: Mine Water

Map credit: InvestSWVA “Project Oasis” report

by James A. Bacon

I don’t know if the latest scheme cooked up by Southwest Virginia’s economic developers is crackpot or genius, but it certainly is intriguing. As the coal industry of the state’s coal counties continues to bleed out, regional leaders are looking for ways to diversify the economy. And they think they might have identified a unique resource in the region — geothermal cooling — that will make it attractive to data centers.

Data centers are energy hogs. Massive banks of servers generate a lot of heat, which takes a lot of energy to cool. As a consequence, electricity is one of the biggest cost components of every data center.

A data center in Pennsylvania uses an limestone cave, which has continually replenished supply of 52° water, to cool a data center. As it happens, Southwest Virginia has limestone caves. Moreover, the region is riddled with underground coal mines that have flooded with water. According to an InvestSWVA report, “Project Oasis: Market Analysis for Data Center Investment in Southwest Virginia,” using mine water for cooling could reduce the electricity required for cooling the data center by 90%. The annual savings would be more than $1 million annually.

Microsoft data center in Boydton

Labor requirements for operating a data center should not be a barrier. Facilities typically employ only 40 people or so, and even in the relatively sparsely populated Southwest, data-center operators should be able to able to recruit enough locals with the required aptitudes and skills. Mecklenburg County in Southside is not exactly a hotbed for tech talent, but Microsoft has found enough talent there to support a $2 billion investment in its data-center complex.

Broadband connectivity may be bigger potential bottleneck. Mecklenburg County made Microsoft’s cut because it is situated on a fiber optic network of the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative. Southwest Virginia does has access to fiber-optic cable, but does the cable run past limestone caves and coal mines? In the mountainous terrain of the far Southwest, the availability of flat land constrains the site options even more.

The Project Oasis report has identified six sites within 1,152 feet to 25 miles of fiber backbone — one each in Wise, Washington, Wythe, Dickenson, Scott, and Carroll counties. Four are said to be “development ready.”

Another question is water quality. Water from coal mines may be the right temperature, but how contaminated is it? Would mineral deposits from the water clog up coolant systems? How much would it cost to remove the minerals? I found no discussion of water quality in the report. I presume that reflects the fact that water quality is not a significant consideration, not a gap in the thoroughness of the report.

Tax considerations also figure prominently in the report. Data centers are insanely capital intensive, and Virginia’s tax structure — property taxes, machine & tool taxes — are adapted to an industrial-era economy. The report recommends several modifications to the state and local tax structure to make Southwest Virginia more competitive in the bid for data centers, and proposes public funding to build a pilot program to demonstrate that mine-water cooling is a viable option for data centers.

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71 responses to “The New Secret Weapon in Economic Development: Mine Water

  1. Maybe they could blast to remove the tops of mountains to make nice flat surfaces for the data centers…!!

  2. That has serious hope for success. Cooling is the issue. Much of data center design is dedicated to heat dissipation.

    Sounds like something that shouldn’t require any state money to fund. The mines are already there and they are filled with water. Get out the word to the data center operators.

    Or maybe Dominion could build a pipeline to get that cool water from SoVa to those data centers in NoVa. Call it the “Green Energy Pipeline” and see if it flies this time.

    • Mine water is almost also contaminated with acid.

      If you need electricity , why not solar/wind on top of those decapitated mountains, and if you have excess heat, why not hot-house vegetables?

      Contaminated/acidified water has to be cleaned before use and then you have the stuff that extracted from it -what do you do with that? You cannot dump it into a nearby stream.

      The problems in SW Va with the quality of the workforce, drug use, education, lack of internet, etc… are things that undermine economic development. Companies don’t want to be where their employees don’t want to live.

      • Im not sure it matters whether it is contaminated as long as it is cold and won’t rot the conduit used to carry it to the data centers.

        • You can bet your booties that you don’t want acid water in the HVAC system.

          It’s just yet another “idea” not well thought through for regions that are desperate for economic development.

          If you want to attract industry – you have to have an educated workforce, internet, decent schools, clean streams, not polluted, places where young folks can go outdoors and bike, hike, etc… It has to be a place where people want to live – not some hellhole that has a data center.

          • You wouldn’t use the ground water directly. You would drop a closed loop heat exchanger into the ground and use some sort of polypropylene or ethylene glycol mixture.

            If you insist on moving the water, glass linings can be used for piping the water around. Monel or inconel make good pipes for nasty stuff too.

            More importantly, from where should we watch this — “The asteroid is set to make its close approach at 7:33 a.m. ET on November 2 when the space rock could come as close as 4,776 miles to the center of the Earth, CNEOS data suggests. This is the space rock’s minimum-possible close approach distance.”

          • Yes. And you can do that just about anywhere once you go down 10-20 feet… Perhaps for a data center they need “more” ?

            Karst ( swiss-cheese type limestone) is notorious for changing water levels. It’s not like underground reservoirs by more like underground rivers… that change flow.

          • “Contaminated/acidified water has to be cleaned before use…”

            Exactly how much does it need to be “cleaned” before being used as cooling water for a data center?

          • “It’s just yet another “idea” not well thought through for regions that are desperate for economic development.”

            You should probably limit your comments to things about which you have knowledge.

          • N_N:

            “…the space rock could come as close as 4,776 miles to the center of the Earth…”

            The earth is +/- 7900 miles in diameter (radius = 3,950 mile).

            Is the thing really going to pass less than 900 miles from the surface of the earth? That would put it very close to being in the Thermosphere, which some consider part of the earth’s atmosphere.

          • That’s not how data center cooling would work. Microsoft once experimented with dropping the data centers into the sea. The methods used to cool datacenters can be very different than the methods used to cool your house.

            Building datacenters requires a trained workforce more than an educated workforce. During the build phase it’s just another construction project. The operate phase needs very few people – like security guards, for example.

            I kind of agree that the datacenters won’t attract industry. Where is the datacenter located that is running BaconsRebellion? You don’t know and you don’t care. Loudoun County didn’t become Silicon Valley because it had a lot of datacenters. It’s just a wealthy suburban county with a lot of datacenters. Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley because it has the developers that use the daacenters not because of datacenters themselves.

            You would expect datacenters to pay more in real estate taxes than farmland or forest. That could be a benefit. Of course, that’s only if the local yokels resist the temptation to cut the taxes to get the datacenters to Mayberry in the first place.

            Coal has been dying in Virginia for years. Even a slight private enterprise based improvement seems worth investigating.

            https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2016/02/microsofts-new-way-for-cooling-its-datacenters-throw-them-in-the-sea/

          • Wayne, one site said 4,500 km. Which is worrisome since the Earth’s radius is some 6,000 km. Hmmm.

            NASA says close, real close, with .4% chance of a hit. Time for a shave? How big was the one in Siberia? This is a 2m ball.

          • He’s pretty sure he’s almost never wrong… bad on you for pointing that out..

          • Dick Hall-Sizemore

            Data centers are a type of industry. Granted, they don’t employ a lot of people, but they do contribute to the tax base without demanding a lot of services, such as more schools, etc.

            Have you ever been to Southwest Virginia? It is not a “hellhole”. The people are hard working, the streams are clean, there is lots of opportunity for young folks to go outdoors, and hike, camp, etc.

            This could be a good idea that needs more exploration and encouragement from the state.

      • “You cannot dump it into a nearby stream.” I wish that were true.

        • Obviously someone CAN dump it into nearby streams. However, if it has a pH less than 6, they may not (as in, are not allowed to) dump it into nearby streams – unless it’s being dumped into a swamp and then I think the minimum pH is 3.6.

          • Is it cost effective to treat the water with lime to increase it’s pH so it can be dumped into a nearby stream?

          • “Is it cost effective to treat the water with lime to increase it’s pH so it can be dumped into a nearby stream?”

            It can be, if pH is the only issue.

            If metals also need to be removed, which is likely with water in an old coal mine, it is probably more effective to use sodium hydroxide to raise the pH to somewhere between 8.1 and 8.6. Most metals contained in industrial wastewater will start precipitating at some pH level within this range. NaOH is better for this than lime because it takes a LOT of lime per gallon treated to continue to raise pH after it reaches about an 8).

            After raising the pH to the desired level, the metals would be settled or filtered out of the water, and the pH lowered back to between 7.0 and 7.2 +/- or so before discharging the treated water to a stream or river. That’s a gross oversimplification of how to remove heavy metals from water, but it basically accurate for most contaminant metals.

            Please note, though, that although it would be best overall for the environment if some of the the water that’s been sitting in these closed mine was “treated and released”, if the intent is for it to essentially be a giant heat-sink it could serve that purpose without treatment.

  3. I would think at those underground temperatures, clean water could be continuously recycled through the HVAC system to keep it cool.
    As to an educated workforce, only 40 persons are required per site. Surely, that should not be an impediment, even in Dogpatch, Va.

    • Really nothing magical about geo-thermal HVAC. You can do it anywhere – it just costs about 2-3 times as much up front but long-term costs are 1/2.

      Water in limestone and Karst (which is what is in SW Va) is no different than water and soil in the rest of Virginia.

      On the workforce, I agree. Small workforce. But most young professionals do not want to live in a rural area with some of the deficits a lot of rural areas have. Out west, places like Bend Oregon and Butte, Montana attract young professional and the companies in turn because they provide the environment that young professionals want.

      In Virginia, I just don’t see that motivation for many of the rural counties. They seem to think more that the State should “rescue” them than they themselves do the things that will bootstrap their own regions so they are places where young educated actually want to live – and work – and play.

      • Do me a favor. Please do not ever drive any further south or west than where you live right now (unless, of course, you are just passing through as you move out of the state).

      • Geo-thermal HVAC uses the coolness of being underground to cool the air. This plan uses the coolness of buried cold water. Seems like two different things to me. I’ve seen a lot of crazy plans regarding how to cool big datacenters (example: build them in Iceland). This is not even close to the craziest I have heard. Not even in the zip code. See my comment above where Microsoft wanted to drop the datacenters into the sea.

        • re: ” the coolness of buried cold water”

          yes, and you have to ask why is it cool? why is it any cooler than any other soil or water underground?

          ” At soil depths greater than 30 feet below the surface, the soil temperature is relatively constant, and corresponds roughly to the water temperature measured in groundwater wells 30 to 50 feet deep. This is referred to as the “mean earth temperature.” Figure 2 shows the mean earth temperature contours across the United States. In Virginia, the mean earth temperature ranges from 52ºF in the northern Shenandoah Valley and Winchester area to 62ºF in coastal Tidewater.”

          https://www.builditsolar.com/Projects/Cooling/EarthTemperatures.htm

    • Depends. Do you want these 40 persons to be able to pass a drug test?

  4. Baconator with extra cheese

    I love my Larry G education.
    It’s about the direct quantity of cold water genius….

    • It’s silly stuff. All water and soil down 10-20 feet, typically is “colder”. There is no magic where there is limestone and karst. We’re not Glacier Park!

      • Baconator with extra cheese

        A mine is millions of cubic feet of water at approximately 56 degrees … data centers use extreme amounts of water and typically can’t meet required surface water discharge limits…
        It has nothing to do with glaciers or karst… and no it takes more than 10-20 feet in depth to have that type of temperature differential… . and in northern Virginia you do not have tranmissivity or storage in the aquifers to transmit that type of cooling… plus in a world where water is at a premium you don’t want to unnecessarily use potential potable sources for cooling.
        Christ dude there is science involved and you poo poo stuff just to move your lips.

      • Seriously, please stop making comments about this issue.

  5. First air conditioned house in the US was above Luray Caverns. Well, sort of, they had a hole in the floor. The first HVAC house was in Dallas. It’s now the gift shop at the Dallas arboretum.

    If Chicago is the city the elevator build, then Dallas is the city HVAC built.

    • Supposedly, Annaburg Manor in Manassas, built in 1892, was one of the first to have mechanical air conditioning. I’ve never found any details about the air conditioning system it supposedly had, nor any pictures of the equipment. The owner, Robert Portner, supposedly had a patent on the air conditioning system he designed for it. Again, no details.

      https://wtop.com/business-finance/2019/07/manassas-buys-annaburg-manor-first-house-with-air-conditioning/

      I have a feeling that the air conditioning system was a fan blowing on some ice.

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        I remember this story. I believe that cold air was drawn into the main house via an underground duct from the adjacent ice house. The design did include a crude version of an AC condenser.

      • Uh, maybe the house was the first mechanical AC in Texas. The house, 21,000 sqft, was completed in 1938. The system used ammonia for the refrigerant.

        Any of the ice house fans or the open vent to the caverns would have easily predated 1938.

        • Entirely possible that the information is just wrong. There’s big difference between a historian and a mechanical engineer.

          • People first started using ammonia as a refrigerant in France starting in the 1850’s, and its use was brought to the United States in the 1860’s. By the 1900’s, ammonia refrigerators were being used in many commercial facilities to create blocks of ice, keep food cold, and produce other chemicals. Starting in the 1920’s, it was used in ice rinks, and by the 1930’s it was used in air conditioners for both industrial requirements and for keeping homes cool.
            https://www.creativesafetysupply.com/articles/ammonia-refrigeration/

            Your manor could have used ammonia.

  6. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Morven Park in Leesburg put in a geothermal system about 20 years ago. Spent millions on it. They dug up the huge bowling green in front of the mansion and installed a massive geothermal unit. Took years to complete. I have no idea if the system is efficient and paid for itself. I do like this kind of thinking. There is a company in Mechainicsville, VA that has done this kind of work all over the region with success.

    • In the county in which I reside, two public buildings use geothermal HVAC. The one which was designed and constructed as part of a new building was and remains a resounding success. The one which was retrofitted to an old school building a number of years ago during a renovation is not worth a bucket of warm spit.

  7. Jim Bacon ought to arrange a tour of a Virginia datacenter for the commenters. I’ve been on dozens of those tours given by the datacenter / hosting / Application-As-A-Service / cloud companies that wanted my developers to use their datacenters. Or, with the company I worked for that ran public cloud datacenters. It’s an enlightening experience.

    I don’t know why a dataenter operator would give us a tour but maybe we could cook up some excuse. I imagine the inmates going on that fishing trip in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

    • Things to know about datacenters:

      1)You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.

      2)Aside from the security guard at the front desk, you might not see another single person in the place.

      3)Cardboard is verboten. Seriously. Don’t bring it into the datacenter, and if you somehow manage to get it past the security guard, do NOT leave it in your cage. You will get a phone call about it.

      4)The HVAC systems make a lot of noise. If you need to make a phone call, go to the break room.

      5)Some security guards are really on the ball and will have the key for your cage/rack waiting for you when they see your car on the security camera. Others will require you to repeat the cage/rack number multiple times as though you were having a bad drive-thru ordering experience.

      6)The lighting in some data centers is really bad. Bring a flashlight.

    • “I imagine the inmates going on that fishing trip in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.”

      That is the EXACT picture that “flew” into my head when I read the first sentence of your comment. I want to be Scanlon.

    • I think a couple tours for the Bacon’s Rebellion writers would be great, and I respectfully disagree with “idiocracy” that they are all the same. I’ve done site selection and written RFPs for data center contracts and suggest the following:

      1. Before you go, do some research about the Tier Clarification System for datacenters. It will help everyone to know what to look for and ask about.

      https://uptimeinstitute.com/tiers

      2. Make sure the person conducting the tour is very knowledgeable, and points out what is not necessarily apparent to the naked eye. I’ve toured some facilities where I was more aware of some specifics than the person doing the tour. Take the building for visitor screening for example. The windows are often bulletproof glass. That’s not apparent just by looking at it. I always ask what protection level it is. Another example, the perimeter fencing should be K12 rated. (The K is for kinetic. K12 is a ram barrier specification.)

      3. My specific site recommendations would be QTS in Richmond area and Equinix datacenter in Culpeper, VA. Each is unique in significant ways.

  8. Larry keeps referring to Karst topography, however the coal producing areas of Southwest Virginia generally lie on the Appalachian Plateau, which is not karst. The valley and ridge area of Virginia exhibits the Karst topography he’s referring to.

  9. 2020 the 245th year of the Commonwealth

    DMME

    DIVISION OF GEOLOGY AND MINERAL RESOURCES
    HOME

    DIVISION OF GEOLOGY AND MINERAL RESOURCES

    SINKHOLES AND KARST TERRAIN

    • You are correct. My apologies. For some thoroughly unexplainable reason I was confusing/conflating karst with shrink/swell soil regions – and they have nothing to do with each other.

      However, I stand by my comments regarding your lack of knowledge regarding water treatment and geothermal heat transfer. 😉

    • I was born in Wise County and lived there for 30 years and still live the SWVA region. As a long time resident and as a worker at, support person of and owner of coal mines for over 35 years I know that coal only lies in the sandstone areas. The limestone, or Karst areas, are adjacent to the coal mining regions. SWVA is a transitional area between sandstone and limestone which is why large scale coal mining is so limited to specific areas within a select few counties. There are no natural “sink holes ” in sandstone areas, only subsidence from older underground mines which are easily predicted.
      Water from mines are specific to the area the mine is in and can be specific to the individual mine. Water testing over the past 40 years for each and every mine on a daily, weekly or monthly basis has been extensively regulated at the state and federal and the characteristics of water in each and every mine is well known and documented, even after the mine closes. In my experience, water can be red colored, acidic and sulfur smelling to pristine drinking water you expect from a natural spring.
      I would trust the people looking at these sites to make a comprehensive review of the testing history of the water and the current conditions before making a multimillion dollar investment.
      Don’t worry about, it is their money!

      • Thanks for weighing in with the facts. It is refreshing to get comments from someone in that area. I hope you continue to contribute on a regular basis.

        It has been several years since I have been to Southwest Virginia, but I always enjoyed my trips there. Some favorites places: Breaks Interstate Park, Burke’s Garden, Carter Fold. Interesting experience, but not a favorite: meeting a loaded coal truck on one of those winding roads!

  10. so if datacenters don’t employ many people then why would they be “good” economic development?

  11. So, why do people think there is oil on the continental shelf off Virginia if there is no oil east of the coal seams to the coast?

  12. Baconator with extra cheese

    Oil and coal are two different things that may or may not occur in the same location but usually at vastly different depths. There are basins off the coast.. and traps.
    There are also traps out there with fresh water… the earth is magnificent and if you take some upper level geology and geochemistry courses you learn some crazy stuff.

  13. Don’t forget we had a recent article here about the NoVA data centers. The Ripper (DJR) told us in the new 5G world, there could be less need for data centers because for super fast computing speed, you need the data closer to the end-user.

    So let’s focus on the heart of the proposal, turning abandoned coal mines into geothermal power centers. I don’t know if that makes sense or not without further review. Sounds far fetched, but never say never.

    Things like electric cars and offshore wind power do not make very good financial sense, and yet we are progressing those ideas. How? Mandates, and enormous subsidies. Coupled with large penalties and taxes on fossil fuel energy. So we can never say never when politics is involved.

    • There are pluses and minuses for locating a datacenter in any potential area.

      Any potential hazard must be avoided. This includes flooding, earthquakes, chemical spills and numerous others.

      Multiple sources of reliable power is a must. Ideally there are multiple substations from different providers.

      The facility must also have multiple reliable sources for fuel to replenish for backup electrical generation. A natural gas pipeline would be a big asset. If fuel must come by truck, there needs to be good roads with redundant way of accessing the facility.

      Probably the biggest potential downside for rural Virginia would be connectivity. That’s a huge factor for choosing a site for a datacenter and is why the area around Ashburn, Virginia has so many facilities. That area is a worldwide hub of Internet connectivity. Everyone who is anyone has a presence there.

  14. Water in deep mines isn’t always cold

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