It’s been said that the internet made geography irrelevant.

A company in Maine can use programs developed by a vendor in Washington state to communicate with customers all over the world.

And all the information from all of those transactions lives “in the cloud”: shared storage facilities called data centers that could be anywhere on the planet.

But a California company is betting that even in the age of cloud computing, geography does matter. Nautilus Data Technologies has announced that it has picked Millinocket to be the site of its new $300 million, 60-megawatt data center.

The building is proposed for a small part of the former Great Northern Paper site, once the world’s largest paper mill, which was torn down in 2014, more than a century after it first opened for business.

With so much difference between the paper-making industry of the 20th century and the information economy in the 21st, it’s fascinating that Great Northern and Nautilus Data picked the site for the same reason: Its location on the West Branch of the Penobscot River.

Regardless of what people say, data is not really stored in a cloud. It goes to computer servers that are stacked in warehouse-like buildings. It takes huge amounts of electricity to run the servers and cool the buildings, and data centers are usually located in places where electricity is cheap. It’s ironic that the latest technology enterprises are powered by coal-burning plants.

Nautilus, however, is developing a new model that’s less expensive to operate and friendlier to the environment.

The Millinocket data center will use cold river water to cool the servers, pumped through a closed loop system that won’t release any coolants or other chemicals into the river. The frigid air of northern Maine will also help keep the data center cool. It will use 30 percent less electricity than a typical data center, and it will use the same carbon-free hydropower that once made the paper mill go.

The data center would not be coming to Millinocket if not for work done by the local economic development nonprofit Our Katahdin, with help from the state and federal governments. Gov. Mills and U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King were on hand in Millinocket on Saturday when the project was announced.

One data center, which is expected to create about 30 jobs, will never replace the economic impact of Great Northern Paper, which employed thousands of people in the company’s heyday.

But it shows that the natural and human resources that attracted industry to rural Maine in the last century still have value in this one. The industries may change, but geography still matters.


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