Loudoun County is gaining a reputation as the data center capital of the world. It is estimated that 70% of the world’s internet traffic passing through on any given day. Data centers have grown exponentially not only in Loudoun County but also in Fairfax and Prince William counties. In Loudoun County, driving down Waxpool Road you can see many data center campuses and those under construction, giving the area the name “data center alley.”
The expansion in the area is due to many factors which include the growing importance of the internet in our daily lives, economy, and business’s with ever increasing amounts of data, the lucrative enticements given to large data center companies by county officials and its geographic proximity to Washington D.C. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Digital Realty, CyrusOne, Coresite and many others operate here.
With such expansion come costs. The presence of data center companies in the region has a large role in determining how electricity is produced and delivered here in Virginia. With the ever increasing amount of data centers coming online it is driving the demand in-state for more energy than any other sector within Virginia. Dominion Energy Virginia, which supplies electricity to most of the state's data centers, is arguing for the expansion of more fossil fuel infrastructure to meet such demand. This includes power plant expansion, increasing fracking activities and the construction of the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Dominion's relationship to data center companies has evolved over time, and the issue of expanding infrastructure to satiate the data center needs has resulted in many controversial issues over recent years. 2014 marked the start of a four-year battle between Haymarket in Prince William County and Dominion Energy over proposed overhead transmission lines and a substation on behalf of Amazon, which has continuously scaled its network capacity and infrastructure more than any other company. These lines were to be built through residential property, but residents argued on behalf of buried lines along I-66. Local organizing and pressure on local officials brought about a compromise where lines are indeed to be buried along I-66 in what is a direct line to Dominion's biggest customer, Amazon.
This is somewhat reminiscent of the battle at Union Hill, which began five years ago where Dominion Energy proposed the multistate natural gas pipeline – the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – traverse the countryside as well as the building of a gas-fired compressor station in Buckingham County. Residents of the historically black community of Union Hill in league with other environmental groups have been challenging the expansion of this fossil fuel infrastructure exclaiming that such projects bring about health and climate risks as well as disproportionately burdening minorities and lower income communities.
The Fourth National Climate Assessment as well as the most recent IPCC report recognized the effects of climate change are already being felt by communities across the country and around the world. The time to mitigate on a local and global level against the increasing changes to our climate system is narrowing by the day. It is certain that any future projects that increase our need and reliance on fossil fuel dramatically threaten our future.
Sierra Club, working in conjunction with other environmental groups such as Greenpeace, are increasing pressure on data center companies to demand more renewable energy to power their data centers. Companies like Amazon have made strong rhetorical commitments to renewable energy, but in many cases such commitments are never seen in action or fall short of any real goals. Yet, the pushback seen in Virginia's communities, the already established marketing and rhetoric that data center companies are “committed” to more renewable infrastructure powering their activities and the grave importance of mitigating against climate change has resulted in many victories already for Virginians.
In just these past weeks 10 of Virginia's data center providers, customers and co-location service providers signed a letter to the State Corporation Commission dated May 8, criticizing the plans Dominion has for fossil fuel infrastructure expansion. The letter notes:
“Dominion Energy's re-filed proposed 2018 Integrated Resource Plan again fails to fully take into account the energy preferences of the data center industry – by limiting the amount of competitively-procured solar energy, neglecting to consider energy storage as a cost-effective and beneficial energy resource, and continuing to plan for the development of additional natural gas infrastructure.”
Despite the much-needed push by these data center companies to put pressure on Dominion, it will unlikely result in the vast transformational change in Virginia's power supply quickly enough to address the climate crisis. Sierra Club and others are calling on these companies to take more immediate steps to procure carbon-free renewable energy from renewable infrastructure in Virginia or outside Virginia connected to Virginia's grid.