More than 100 massive data centers, over 10 million square feet of building space, dot the Northern Virginia landscape around Dulles Airport in what is known as “Data Center Alley.”
And the industry is growing fast.
Local governments welcome the contribution to their tax revenue, but these data centers come with a dark downside: they are energy hogs, and the fossil fuel energy they consume is driving climate change.
A new report from Greenpeace called Clicking Clean Virginia: The Dirty Energy Powering Data Center Alley describes the magnitude of the problem:
“Not including government data centers, we estimate the potential electricity demand of both existing data centers and those under development in Virginia to be approaching 4.5 gigawatts, or roughly the same power output as nine large (500-megawatt) coal power plants.”
As these data center operations continue to grow, they are providing the excuse for utilities, primarily Dominion Energy Virginia, to build new fracked-gas infrastructure, including gas generating plants and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Many of these same tech companies have publicly committed to using renewable energy, and in some cases they have invested heavily in solar and wind power in other states. With the exception of Apple, however, all these data center operators are falling far short in meeting their Virginia energy demand with renewables. Intentionally or not, that makes them complicit in Dominion’s fossil-fuel expansion.
One tech company in particular stands out in the report, due to the sheer size of its operations. Greenpeace calculates that Amazon Web Services, the largest provider of cloud hosting services in the world, has a larger energy load than the next four largest companies combined.
For a while, it looked like AWS would provide leadership commensurate with its size. In 2015, AWS helped break open the solar market in Virginia with an 80-megawatt solar farm. A year later it added another 180 megawatts of solar here, as well as a wind farm in North Carolina in Dominion territory.
Then the investments stopped, while the data center growth continued.
Today, Greenpeace estimates that AWS uses close to 1,700 megawatts for its Virginia data centers. Adjusted for their capacity factors, the renewable energy projects total just 132 megawatts, or less a tenth of the energy the data centers use.
The capacity factor of an energy facility reflects how much energy it actually produces, as opposed to its “nameplate” capacity. A solar facility produces only in daylight, but a data center consumes energy 24/7. To match all of its energy demand with solar energy, AWS would need more than 7,000 megawatts of solar—at least 15 times the amount in all of Virginia today.
For a company whose website promises a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy, that’s a major fail.
The Greenpeace report shows Amazon is not alone in data center operators that are dragging their feet on clean energy. It is simply, by far, the largest. The next three biggest data center operators—Cloud HQ, Digital Reality, and QTS—have no renewable energy at all in Virginia.
Better-known names like Microsoft and Facebook also operate Virginia data centers. Although both have invested in Virginia solar farms, they also fall well short of meeting their energy needs with renewables.
The tech giants are not entirely to blame in all this. As the Greenpeace report details, many of them have asked the General Assembly and the State Corporation Commission for more and better options for purchasing renewable energy. Their requests have largely been ignored.
Virginia’s monopoly system makes it hard for the companies to buy clean electricity from other providers. Our number one monopoly, Dominion Energy, claims to be working hard to meet the large customers’ demand for renewable energy, but its extensive investments in gas infrastructure pose a clear conflict of interest.
Surely, though, if anyone can stand up to Dominion on its home turf, it should be Amazon — which, of course, plans to make Virginia its home turf as well.
And AWS does have options, including more solar as well as land-based wind from the Rocky Forge wind farm and offshore wind from Virginia or North Carolina.
The fact that Amazon doesn’t even seem to be trying should be of great concern to Virginians. As Greenpeace puts it, “AWS’ decision to continue its rapid expansion in Virginia without any additional supply of renewable energy is a powerful endorsement of the energy pathway Dominion has chosen, including the building of the ACP, and a clear signal that its commitment to 100 percent renewable energy will not serve as a meaningful basis for deciding how its data center are powered.”
Amazon has already fired back at the Greenpeace report. In a statement, it asserts that “Greenpeace’s estimates overstate both AWS’ current and projected energy usage.”
However, the statement did not offer a different estimate. It also points to its investments in Virginia renewable energy (the same ones described in the report) and concludes, “AWS remains firmly committed to achieving 100 percent renewable energy across our global network, achieving 50 percent renewable energy in 2018. We have a lot of exciting initiatives planned for 2019 as we work towards our goal and are nowhere near done.”
Well, that’s nice.
But meanwhile, those data centers are using electricity generated from burning fossil fuels, driving climate change, and providing an excuse for new fracked gas infrastructure. Given the rapid pace of data center construction in Virginia, it’s going to take a lot of exciting initiatives from AWS — and all the other data center operators — to make any kind of meaningful impact.