Construction workers building ‘the cloud’ in Central Oregon

This 330,000 square foot Facebook data center is located in Prineville, Oregon. Its construction meant hundreds of good-paying union jobs. Data center construction is booming in Central Oregon. (Photo by Alan Brandt)

By STEFAN OSTRACH, Special Correspondent

PRINEVILLE, OREGON — Remember floppy disks and zip drives? As computer technology develops, the trend is away from storing digital data on a PC or laptop. Tablets like the iPad and netbooks don’t even come with hard drives. Digital photos, e-mails, and data files — even software and backups — are more and more likely to be stored “in the cloud.”

The term “cloud computing” wasn’t even coined until 2006. But the computer cloud is not up in the sky. It’s on the ground in massive buildings filled with computer servers. The buildings are called data centers.

Oregon, east of the Cascades, is becoming one of the world’s prime locations for these data centers. And no city is experiencing a bigger data center building boom than Prineville. Located in the heart of Oregon in Crook County, Prineville has important attractions for Internet infrastructure companies: the dry climate of the high desert (sunny days, low humidity, and cool nights), cheap and reliable electric power, available land, and tax breaks.

Central Oregon also has a highly trained and available unionized construction workforce.

Facebook was in Prineville first, buying 124 acres of sagebrush- and juniper-covered land in 2009. It is now completing its second 330,000-square-foot data center at the location. A third, smaller building is planned, and there is room for at least one more large data center. Facebook’s capital spending on the first building alone brought $24.4 million in direct local economic activity.

I sat home for a year-and-a-half. Now I’m back to the tools,” — Jeffrey Nelson, member of Plumbers Local 290.

Apple acquired 160 acres of land across the street from Facebook, and recently broke ground on a 338,000-square-foot, 100 percent green, data storage complex. A 10,000 square-foot modular server array has already been built at the location. Apple reportedly has plans to invest more than $250 million and the site and could build as many as 14 additional data halls.

All of the Facebook construction, with the exception of excavation, has been done with union labor. More than 2,500 people have worked at the site, with 50 percent hired locally and the other half coming from elsewhere in Oregon.
Apple also is using union contractors.

David Burger, executive secretary of the Central Oregon Building Trades Council, said union crafts on the high tech projects include IBEW Local 280, Plumbers and Fitters Local 290, Sheet Metal Workers Local 16, Iron Workers Local 29, Cement Masons Local 555, Heat and Frost Insulators Local 36, Painters Local 10, Roofers Local 49, Operating Engineers Local 701, Carpenters, and Laborers.

Burger, a business agent for Tualatin-based Local 290 who lives in Redmond, explained why the giant tech companies like the Prineville area so much:

  1. Climate. Data centers need to keep their closely packed servers cool, and the high desert climate in Central Oregon is great for that purpose. “We have 300 days a year with freezing temperatures,” he said, “so the area offers lots of free cooling and low humidity.” Low humidity is even more important than low temperatures. That’s because where humidity is low, super-high-tech data centers can use a version of low-tech swamp cooler technology that dates back to ancient Persia. On a second story — above the long halls of servers — evaporating water can cool very efficiently. The high desert’s natural cooling capability means data centers there don’t need to rely on mechanical air conditioning, which provides a huge cost savings.
  2. Cheap electricity. Even with the natural or “free cooling,” data centers still require a lot of power and Central Oregon has lots of cheap hydroelectric power available. Prineville sits just four miles off Bonneville Power Administration’s (BPA) main transmission line to California, and the agency is speeding up expansion of a substation to serve the new data centers. Andrew Blum, a writer at Wired magazine, told the Oregonian newspaper recently that data centers “are kind of like the aluminum smelters of the Internet.” In fact, data centers are now using more and more of the electricity once used to power the region’s aluminum plants before they were shut down. The Northwest Power Council projects that data centers may be using 10 percent of the Northwest’s energy — two-thirds of the aluminum industries peak in the 1980s. Put in perspective, Oregon data centers already are using as much electricity as 239,000 homes.
  3. Tax breaks. Oregon offers huge tax advantages to high-tech industries, including data centers. No sales tax means companies can purchase equipment cheaper, and locating in an “enterprise zone” brings a 15-year property tax exemption on buildings and machinery. Burger related how forward-looking Crook County and Prineville city officials were when they assembled huge tracts of “bare land — no farming or grazing, just sagebrush” — into enterprise zones to attract high tech investment.  Jason Carr, Prineville manager of Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO), said another 500 to 600 acres are sitting ready for development today.

Carr defended the tax breaks, pointing out that Facebook and Apple will pay property taxes on their land, and franchise fees to the City for their electricity, as well as voluntary payments in lieu of taxes.

And while acknowledging that the data centers will provide very few long- term jobs, he still characterized the developments as “a pretty big boon for the city.” When Facebook’s project is completed, he estimates that long-term employment will be “close to 100 full time employees with health benefits.”
Oregon’s construction workers aren’t complaining either.

Several members of Local 290 who live in Central Oregon talked to the Labor Press prior to a union meeting in Redmond.

“I sat home for a year-and-a-half. Now I’m back to the tools,” said Jeffrey Nelson, who has 21 years in the trade.

Nelson said he enjoys the regular work, too — Monday through Friday, eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, without much overtime.

Foreman Steve Kerr, who lives in John Day, said it’s nice to work locally. “Now I can go home every weekend. I could make it for my grandkid’s birth,” he said.

Fitter Brent Bishop said before Facebook broke ground he sat out of work for a year. “It was real ugly. I lost my insurance. This is the steadiest and longest I’ve been working,” he said.

Chris Rockwood, a plumber with a wife and two kids, was out of work for a year-and-a-half. “Eighteen months with no work was challenging,” he said.

Bishop and the others also commented on the jobsite. “Awesome,” he said. “The cleanest, safest job, most productive I’ve ever had. It’s like your grandma’s kitchen floor.”

In July, general contractor DPS/Fortis celebrated a million hours worked without a lost-time accident.

Local businesses in Prineville also are getting a boost.

John Beach, manager of the Executive Inn, said his motel is full all the time. “It pays the overhead, my wages, and all the bills,” he said.

Mandy Ireland, a bartender at the Horseshoe Tavern, said, “We see a lot of the Facebook guys in here, especially Taco Tuesdays. Business has picked up. It’s benefited the whole town.”

And unlike other construction projects that provide only short bursts of employment, the size, complexity, and phased nature of the data center projects keep the work going.

“We’ve been here two-and-a-half years — a good run,” said K.C. Beddow, superintendent for Rosendin Electric at the Facebook site.

And there’s still plenty of work to do at Facebook and Apple. Add to the mix other high-tech companies negotiating for land, water, and power in Central Oregon, EDCO’s Carr says construction contractors can expect to look forward to another five to 10 years of building the cloud in Central Oregon.

 

High-tech firms prefer using union labor

Facebook’s corporate policy encourages buying and sourcing locally. Only a few general contractors have the knowledge and experience to build precision high-tech facilities, and Portland-based Fortis has a history of using union subcontractors.

Craig White, DPS/Fortis Mechanical, Electrical, and Piping superintendent, gave two reasons for preferring union labor: “Unions are familiar with these types of projects, and they have a qualified labor pool with training and experience. We know they have the level of schooling we need.”

White said he is happy with how the project is going. “We get workers who care, 99 percent care about craftsmanship and the product we’re turning over to Facebook.”

Facebook spokesman Lee Weinstein said the company is “absolutely” pleased with how the work has been going in Prineville. “The commitment to craftsmanship and safety has been exceptional,” he said, “We’re proud to provide good jobs at a fair wage.”

Asked about whether Facebook’s experience with union labor in Prineville would make them more or less inclined to use union contractors in the future, Weinstein replied, “We’ve had a wonderful experience and don’t plan to change our construction plans.”


(Editor’s Note: Union construction workers performed the majority of work at Google operations in The Dalles and at Amazon data centers in Boardman. Google invested $600 million and is operating out of three data centers (205,000 square feet) on 37 acres on the banks of the Columbia River in The Dalles. It employs over 150 full-time workers. Amazon is completing a second 120,000-square-foot data center adjacent to one it opened last year in Morrow County.)

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