Big, boxy data centers are springing up across the county, seemingly overnight, on every vacant lot. Loudoun County houses the highest concentration of data centers in the world. An estimated 70 percent of global internet traffic passes through Loudoun each day.
Data centers, which allow browsing, streaming, and communication using the internet, cater to global needs, but unfortunately they demand inordinate amounts of local resources.
Energy for Loudoun data centers
Each data center requires local energy and local water to operate, run and cool its equipment. Most of the energy comes from Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility. Dominion’s current Integrated Resource Plan calls for decreasing fossil fuel usage by 2030 by only 2 percent. Since it aspires to increase the amount of electricity it generates by 29 percent by 2030, the net effect will be an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, not a decrease, as called for by the Paris Climate Accords.
Dominion is actively pursuing fossil fuel sources, especially the $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or ACP, which will deliver fracked gas into Virginia and North Carolina and further lock Virginia into relying on fracked gas. Fracking is a hotly debated technique of extracting oil and natural gas from far below Earth’s surface, opponents of which cite numerous negative environmental effects.
How are data center owners responding?
The largest cloud computing data centers in Virginia are Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft and Google. AWS dominates, with at least 55 data centers and more planned. In 2014, Amazon pledged to power its data centers with 100 percent renewable energy, but the company gave no deadline. By 2016, it added 132 megawatts of renewable energy in Virginia. However, since 2017 – while building an estimated 20 new data centers in Loudoun – it added 0 megawatts in renewable energy. The new data centers added 626 megawatts of energy demand, the equivalent usage of 1.4 million U.S. homes, while AWS data centers in Virginia are powered by only 12 percent renewable energy. (Too little, too slowly.) Although AWS could influence the state’s strategy on renewable, despite its public statements, it seems to be doing less than it should.
According to an in-depth study by Greenpeace of 15 companies having data centers in Virginia, nine have made some sort of renewable energy commitment but only five – AWS, Microsoft, Facebook, SalesForce and Apple – have some renewable power sources for their Virginia operations. Of these five, only Apple, with the smallest requirement of 20 megawatts, has reached the 100 percent level.
The tech giants that own the data centers are Dominion’s customers. So perhaps they should be the ones hounding Dominion for renewable energy sources. According to UtilityDive.com, 10 tech companies sent a letter to Dominion criticizing the company for “continuing to plan for the development of additional natural gas infrastructure.” The companies included Apple, Microsoft, AWS and seven others, though neither Google nor Facebook.
Who are the losers if this trend continues? Tech giants will continue to build data centers and profit from them. Power companies will continue to produce energy and profit from doing so. The citizens of Loudoun and the world – we and future generations everywhere – will see the effects of climate change thought flooding, droughts, mega-storms and damage to homes, crops, roads and water supplies. Finding and using renewable sources is a global problem that requires global as well as local solutions. Given the rapid growth of data centers and the tremendous amount of energy they need, it's critical that we find ways to encourage them to transition away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible.
How can you help?
Protest. Express your concerns at meetings of the Leesburg Town Council and Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. Contact your county supervisor and state representatives.
Pressure the Board of Supervisors to require data centers to convert to renewable energy sources with strict parameters to protect the environment and community.
Contact the owners of the data centers. Look for them on Facebook. Start or sign a petition promoting renewable energy sources. Tell your neighbors. Vote.
Miley is a Leesburg resident and climate change action advocate.