A data center with dozens of diesel generators sits near the popular W&OD trail in Northern Virginia. Source: Hugh Kenny/PEC

Concerned Citizens Seek Transparency About Data Centers In Virginia

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It’s a digital world, and most of us are comfortable with that. Millions of computers in windowless data centers track our every move and compile the data for the benefit of marketers and advertisers. Every keystroke you make on your computer, the URL of every website you visit, your email activity, every time you click on something on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, or Instagram is logged and analyzed by those who want to sell you stuff or influence your thinking. We never stop to think about how much electricity it takes to operate all those servers because it doesn’t concern us directly. We don’t get a bill every month that breaks down how much electricity our digital life consumes.

Just last week, we reported on an article in Wired that claims nearly half of all renewable energy is being used to power data centers. It isn’t powering schools or hospitals or disadvantaged neighborhoods. It is being used to make more money for Google, X, Amazon, and Facebook. Here are some startling statistics from a recent HEATED blog post, which says that according to the International Energy Agency, within the next two years, data centers could consume as much energy as the United Kingdom and Germany combined, with a carbon footprint on par with the aviation industry.

Virginia is ground zero for the data center industry — it has more than 300 of them. Together they process about 70% of the world’s internet traffic. Within the next five years, they will cover more than 26,500 acres, an area almost twice the size of Manhattan, and require the equivalent of more than four nuclear power plants’ worth of power, according to the Sierra Club. Rural residents are up in arms about how many acres of land are needed by solar and wind farms, but no one is questioning how much land data centers use.

The reason for that is simple. Data centers pay lots of money to local and state governments in the form of taxes. Their owners also can afford to hire battalions of smooth-talking lobbyists to grease the palms of local politicians. So the fix is in; more data centers get built and no one is the wiser. Virginia Governor Youngkin is opposed to woke vehicle emissions standards promoted by those liberals in California, so it’s no surprise that when it comes to Dominion Energy building more pollution-spewing thermal generating stations to make electricity for all the those data centers, he’s all smiles. Why would a governor act to protect the citizens of a state from health risks when there is money to be made? Dominion Energy, by the way, is the same public spirited company that recently found a way to prevent counties in Virginia from installing rooftop solar systems on their schools and government buildings that would have saved local taxpayers more than $60 million.

The Piedmont Environmental Council is a 50-year-old conservation group in Virginia. Three years ago, it decided to switch its focus from protecting rivers and streams to documenting the environment damage being done to the environment by powering data centers. Recently. Julie Bolthouse, PEC’s director of land use, took HEATED’s Arielle Samuelson on a tour of what she calls “Data Center Alley” in Virginia. One of the first stops was a walking path that used to be rail line which is now surrounded by hundreds of diesel generators the size of train cars. Those generators are backup power for data centers. When running, they emit the same hazardous pollutants into the air that all diesel engines do, pollutants that could cause health problems ranging from childhood asthma to lung cancer for local residents.

Uncovering The Dirty Truth About Data Centers

PEC is the only reason anyone knows these diesel generators exist. In 2023, staff member John McCarthy just happened to be looking through regulatory town hall announcements and saw a proposal to waive air pollution requirements for a mystery project in Loudoun County. Bolthouse contacted the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to find out what the project was, but DEQ would not release the information. It was only after PEC filed a public records request and the Commonwealth Attorney’s office ordered DEQ to reveal the proposed project that the information was disclosed. The permit application was for 4,021 diesel fuel generators to supply backup power to data centers.

“We were alarmed to find out that we have that much diesel power piled up,” said Bolthouse. The amount was 11 gigawatts — enough to power over 900 homes for a year. The resistance from state officials to disclose the pollution waivers “was very unusual because these are public permits,” she said. “I was so pissed off by their behavior, I stayed up all night for like two nights straight,” working on a map of the generators’ potential polluting impact. PEC then shared that information with the media, encouraged residents to show up at public hearings. It also organized a rally outside the DEQ after which the agency walked back the waiver. Why would state officials behave in such a manner? CleanTechnica readers are savvy enough to make an educated guess.

In Virginia, many data center projects are being developed in secret, as county officials sign nondisclosure agreements with tech companies that hide everything, from company names to building plans, energy needs, and any other information the tech industry deems “proprietary.” PEC has tried to shed light on what is going on behind all that secrecy. So far, the group has mapped over 330 existing and proposed data centers in the state. The proposed data centers alone will cover 180 million square feet, or the equivalent of 1,000 Walmart Super Centers.

Spreading A Wider Net

Soon, the group was getting calls from people all over the state asking for help with the data centers in their neighborhoods. They brought together nearly 40 organizations, from homeowner associations to the Sierra Club, to form the Virginia Data Center Reform Coalition. “We’re all rallied around basically one sound bite, one purpose, which I think is a huge win,” said Bolthouse. “We were all individually playing whack-a-mole with these projects, and we were all losing.”

The growing climate threat from data centers isn’t just from a few thousand diesel backup generators in one state — it’s from the enormous amount of electricity needed to power them. According to the Department of Energy, one data center can require 50 times the electricity of a typical office building. Because of this, utility company Dominion now estimates that data centers alone will double electricity demand in the state by 2040. The surge is endangering Virginia’s goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, as alternatives like solar and wind aren’t growing fast enough to meet demand. That’s partly because Dominion, like many investor-owned utility companies, is bitterly opposed to anyone making electricity within its monopoly area except itself.

Powering Data Centers With Dirty Electricity

To meet the demand, Dominion has decided to build new methane gas plants and continue operating old coal-fired plants that had been scheduled to retire. Residents who live near those plants will just have to continue living with toxic pollution because their governor and elected officials won’t lift a finger to help them. Environmental justice advocates and state lawmakers are concerned that the proposed new plants are being built near communities that are disproportionately low-income and communities of color.

“This is the biggest climate issue we’re facing right now,” said Tim Cywinski, communications director for the Virginia Sierra Club. “The preservation and the increase in fossil fuels is directly tied to data center growth, unfortunately.”

Data centers also require vast amounts of water for electricity and cooling. Bolthouse discovered that Loudoun County’s water use has increased 250% due to data centers, a surge that has environmentalists worried about the state’s drinkable water supply. These issues are only expected to grow alongside the data center industry. In 2021, data center expansion dominated Virginia’s economy, attracting 62% of the state’s new investments. Amazon alone has spent $52 billion building data centers in the state, and is planning to spend an additional $35 billion by 2040. That sum represents the “largest economic investment in Virginia history,” said Governor Glenn Youngkin in a post on social media.

Is it any wonder why Virginia is embracing more data centers? It’s simple: money talks. “To them, this is the golden goose,” said Bolthouse. “That’s what runs our schools. That’s what runs our government. That’s what runs everything in the county.”

No Oversight For Data Centers

When PEC first started focusing on data centers, they found county officials weren’t asking about the electricity or water demands of proposed projects, much less their impact on pollution. “They’re out there approving all these data center projects without any kind of oversight,” said Bolthouse. Earlier this year, PEC and the Data Center Reform Coalition met with state officials in Richmond, “connecting some of these dots between the clean energy transition and carbon emissions and generative AI,” said PEC’s climate director Ashish Kapoor.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle shared the coalition’s concerns. This past legislative session, both Republican and Democratic representatives proposed bills seeking to regulate the industry’s impact. None of these proposed bills passed this year, but for the first time the state pushed for an independent study of impact data centers have on the environment. The study authors even reached out to PEC for their data.

The Takeaway

Does it make you a little crazy to think government officials are entering into non-disclosure agreements with corporations to keep their activities shielded from public view? Doesn’t that seem like corruption, or at least a breach of the implied compact between citizens and their government? We are not talking about national security here. We are talking about the normal everyday business of governing. The government is the representative of the people, not corporations. Who dreams up these schemes to distort the foundations of government for private gain? Does this sound more like the Mafia than free enterprise? Welcome to America, where people are blessed with the best government money can buy.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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