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. 

Bottom line

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.

(4) comments

LetSanityPrevail

I wonder if Ms. Miley did the back of envelope calculation on what impact using solar for example as an energy source would have on our environment? According to the IEEE to generate 1Mw you require nearly 5 acres of solar panels. Assuming as she stated just 20 data centers required 526 Mw this would require a footprint of six square miles of solar panels, not including egress, right of way and other access. Multiply that by the number of data centers currently in operation and planned we could easily see 60 or more square miles of land used for solar farms. I for one would prefer to see our farmland and wooded areas kept as is and not destroyed for a questionable technology, in addition given the 24/7 operation of data centers you would still either need an other source of power to run these centers during nighttime or cloudy days, so even being generous and doubling the capacity to store energy for those situations you would need over 12 square miles of panels. The use of purely renewable energy sources is a naive proposition. We should be looking to use nuclear, natural gas, modified coal and slowly ramp up to other sources as the technology advances. Pressuring the BoS to require renewable resources will discourage this industry from locating in Loudoun hurting our tax base and employment base.

tolerantleft

How about this, just shut off your computer and all other internet devices. That way you won't be contributing to your so-called problem. Lead by example before you tell me what to do.

romano

is there no end to the sheeple parroting the leftist line?

swampfiller

The sky is falling; the sky is falling [alien].

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