Duluth hopes Lake Superior's cool water attracts Google

Officials in Duluth are quietly hopeful they're on the short list for Google's proposed city-wide super-speed data network.

But if you're wondering what internet giant Google might like about Duluth, don't look far.

The water temperature in Lake Superior currently sits at 45 degrees but it gets a lot cooler. And Duluth Mayor Don Ness can attest to that.

He jumped in the lake back in February -- in part to get Google's attention.

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But it might have been more than just a stunt. The computer equipment Google likely needs for an experimental high-speed network generates a lot of heat. And Google is known to look for innovation -- particularly of the money saving variety.

"There's been a great deal of research given right now into how you can use cold water to cool these data centers, in a very natural and environmentally friendly way," Ness said. "Instead of using massive air conditioners, let's use the cold water we have so abundantly in Lake Superior."

While Google spokesman Dan Martin would only say that Google may pick a city before the end of the year, the company wants a city between 50 and 500 thousand people.

Mayor Ness
Duluth Mayor Don Ness
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

But Duluth's aspirations may not be so wild a dream. The lake and other assets may give it an edge, in Minnesota and nationally.

Tech experts say picking a first-in-history broadband test site will work much like locating a large data center -- a matter of weighing risks and costs. Some even expect Google to build a new data center near the new network.

Managing director Tom Freeman of Jones Lang LaSalle - a Chicago-based company that helps site and build data centers around the world - said large enterprise users like Microsoft and Google look for areas where they can best control costs and avoid natural hazards risks.

"The energy costs and energy availability is very high on their list, along with taxes, the tax impact and the municipal incentives that are available. And the construction costs," Freeman said.

So how does Duluth stack up?

Well, besides being cool, Lake Superior doesn't flood and there are no earthquakes.

Electricity in Duluth is affordable. Utility officials say a 30 or 40 megawatt data center could buy power for about five and a half cents a kilowatt hour - about a third of the cost in California and on the East Coast.

Nancy Norr -- development manager for Duluth's electric utility Minnesota Power -- said the city is going to make an effort to stress the area's competitive advantages.

"Whether that is the cool climate, workforce, reasonably priced sites, and other cost advantages compared to, say a metro area like Minneapolis St. Paul," Norr said.

All those factors may give Duluth an edge.

But a gigabit fiber-optic network is a new phenomenon, and handicapping the Google race isn't simple.

Oakland municipal broadband consultant Craig Settles said he thinks Google will be looking at non-tangible factors.

Settles thinks the winning city has to have a diverse economy, and a variety of phone or data services that Google can experiment with. Duluth has a university campus, hospitals and is near a big federally-funded broadband project in neighboring Lake County.

"The second thing is: does that community have the wherewithal to creatively market the fact that they have this network and what they're doing with this network?" Settles said. "The whole thing with getting people to do all these crazy things that they did to get Google's attention, if I'm a marketing person, I'm going to go, well, who was the most creative."

One marketing company -- Michigan-based Steketee Greiner -- gave Duluth credit for its creativity last spring by ranking Duluth at the top of the cities bidding for Google's network, in terms of the online buzz.

But at least one city, Utopia, Utah, says Google has actually talked to them. And for now, Duluth officials aren't saying if they think they're still in the running for Google's fiber sweepstakes.