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When Big Tech Goes Green, Taxpayers Help Foot the Bill

Google and other Silicon Valley giants have tremendous leverage over states, cities, and utilities.

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Illustration: Wenkai Mao for Bloomberg Businessweek

In the otherwise flat Minnesotan expanse, the whitish-gray mound of coal ash looks mountainous, a permanent cemetery of contaminants next to the twin smokestacks of the Sherburne County Generating Station. This power plant doesn’t just run the town of Becker; it pretty much is the town. But within a decade it will close completely. One frigid morning, Greg Pruszinske, Becker’s administrator, is staring at the field across from the coal ash pile, where he’s placed his hopes for the future.

Overhead, bands of high-tension cables connect to towers near the plant. That infrastructure is one reason Google has pledged to put a $600 million data center here. It needs access to massive amounts of uninterrupted power. “The transmission won’t go away” when the coal plant closes, Pruszinske says. “Electrons can come this way, same as they can go the other way.”