Two Denver-based firms see a possible opportunity to serve the needs of North American companies using the Internet from, of all places, Alaska.What’s more, they hope to do it with a large data center, what’s known in the industry as a server farm, on Alaska’s North Slope.It’s a visionary idea, admits Mike Caskey, vice president for lands for Fidelity Exploration and Production Co. in Denver, one of the companies involved."In Alaska you can’t think small, or else things will never get done," he said.What attracts Fidelity and its partner, Andex Resources, also of Denver, to northern Alaska are the huge stranded natural gas reserves.These could provide cheap fuel for generating large quantities of electricity needed to power banks of computers in a server farm, according to Caskey.Caskey is the project manager for Netricity LLC, the Alaska company formed by Fidelity and Andex to pursue the server farm idea. Fidelity holds 75 percent of Netricity, with Andex owning 25 percent.Both companies have links to Alaska, Caskey said. Fidelity is owned by the same parent firm, MDU Resources Group Inc., that owns Anchorage Sand and Gravel through a construction materials subsidiary.Andex Resources, a privately held firm, has been active in southern Alaska oil and gas exploration for several years, Caskey said.Netricity has been working quietly on the idea of the North Slope project for about six months, Caskey said, holding discussions with state Department of Natural Resources officials about buying a quantity of state royalty gas on the North Slope.In mid-April, resolutions were introduced in the state House and Senate in Juneau, asking the Legislature to support the concept. Hearings were held in both the House and Senate Resources Committees.Netricity’s plan is to build a server farm and a 500-megawatt gas-fired power plant on the North Slope which would require a $1 billion investment. Data to and from the facility would flow through a fiber-optic cable built to the North Slope that is now operated by General Communication Inc. of Anchorage.From southern Alaska, the company would rely on fiber-optic cables connecting Alaska with the Pacific Northwest.Caskey said only preliminary discussions have been held with GCI on using the fiber-optic cable. Sections of the cable connecting the North Slope with Fairbanks would need upgrading, he said.Caskey said he was aware of the troubled history of the fiber-optic cable to the North Slope, which has gone through multiple owners and which Alyeska Pipeline Service has refused to use, citing its lack of reliability.Caskey acknowledged that in order to provide the necessary level of reliability for customers of a server farm, a second fiber-optic cable would eventually be required as a backup in the event of a failure of the first line. But he said the cost of a second line would be only a small part of the billion-dollar price tag for the complete project.Caskey said the proposed 500-megawatt generator would be sufficient to run 500,000 servers -- computers delivering Web pages and other information over the Internet -- at once. He said he knows of two companies in the Lower 48 that run in excess of 200,000 servers, and said that other companies would like to do so but there is insufficient power available to do so.In addition to reliable high-speed access to the Internet, a server farm requires large amounts of very reliable electricity to run computers and air conditioning. That electricity is becoming unavailable in many parts of the United States, Caskey said, pointing to California’s energy woes, which have spread to the Pacific Northwest and may spread to the Northeast this summer.Those difficulties, combined with the continued demand for more servers as the Internet continues to grow, led to the concept of a gas-fired power plant on the North Slope."We’re thinking outside the box," Caskey said. "The grid is too saturated to accommodate new server farms. Our project is a nongrid solution for grid problems."Many details of the proposal are still confidential but material distributed to legislators in Juneau show a business case in which the company would acquire state royalty gas for 36 cents per thousand cubic feet.While North Slope producers are working on plans for a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48, the server farm’s requirements for energy would still leave most of the gas for the pipeline, Caskey said.The demand would be large by present Alaska standards, however, about the same amount of gas used for residential and commercial space heating in Southcentral Alaska. A 500- megawatt power plant to serve the data center would need about 118 million cubic feet of natural gas per day, Caskey said.Meanwhile, the feasibility of the gas pipeline to the Lower 48 has yet to be determined, Caskey said. If it isn’t built, the state’s royalty gas, and that of the producing companies, will remain stranded on the North Slope, he said."Instead of exporting molecules, we want to export photons," Caskey said.Caskey said he envisions employees at the generating plant and the server farm working the two weeks on, two weeks off schedule that is common on the North Slope. He said he would like to hire and train Alaskans -- especially Alaska Natives -- to operate the facility. "They’re used to the climate," he said.Even if the pipeline goes ahead it will be several years before it is completed. Netricity’s project could be up and running before that, giving the state a way to sell royalty gas before the pipeline is complete, Caskey said.He acknowledged that if a gas pipeline were built, the price of gas on the Slope might be higher, possibly $1 or more per thousand cubic foot. Netricity might, after it got started, be able to pay that higher price for royalty gas, Caskey said.The company has not contacted the producing companies about gas purchases, he said. Caskey said that if he can acquire the gas at a low enough price, construction of the project could begin as early as next summer.Journal Managing Editor Ed Bennett contributed to this report.