In 2019, with Northern Virginia’s data center boom well underway, I worked with the Sierra Club to provide comments to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on a proposed major source air permit for a data center.
We urged that the data center, owned by Digital Realty, be required to minimize its reliance on highly-polluting, back-up diesel generators by installing on-site solar and battery storage. While rooftop solar alone wouldn’t produce more than a fraction of the energy a data center uses, solar panels and batteries could provide a strong first line of defense against grid outages, without the air pollution.
It wasn’t a new idea; other data centers elsewhere were using clean energy and storage or installing microgrids capable of providing all of the power the facility needed. Yet DEQ rejected the suggestion and gave the go-ahead for the data center to install 139 diesel generators with no pollution controls.
Three years later, data centers have proliferated to such a degree that the power grid can’t keep up. DEQ is now proposing that more than 100 data centers in Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax counties be given a variance from air pollution controls so they can run their diesel generators any time the transmission system is strained. DEQ is taking comments on the proposal through March 14 and will hold a hearing at its office in Woodbridge on February 27.
As a resident of Fairfax County, I’ll be one of the people forced to breathe diesel pollution to keep data centers running. Make no mistake: There would be no grid emergency without these data centers’ thousands of megawatts worth of electricity demand. And there wouldn’t be a threat to Northern Virginia’s air quality without their diesel generators.
It’s fair to ask: Should these data centers have been built if the infrastructure to deliver power to them wasn’t ready? I’d also like to know why DEQ thinks it’s okay to impose on residents the combined pollution from many thousands of diesel generators firing at once, when it has known since at least 2019 that viable, clean alternatives exist.
Batteries alone are an obvious solution for short-term emergency use, and can provide exactly the kind of help to the grid that will be needed this year. Instead of calling on data centers to run diesel generators, a grid operator can avoid the strain by tapping into a data center’s battery, a solution Google is implementing.
But data centers can economically lower their energy and water costs as well as reduce strain on the electric grid by reducing their energy use and using on-site renewable energy. Global energy management companies like Schneider Electric, Virginia AECOM and Arlington’s The Stella Group design microgrid solutions for data centers and other facilities that need 24/7 power.
I contacted Stella Group president Scott Sklar to ask how feasible it is for Northern Virginia’s data centers to meet their needs without diesel generators, given land constraints that limit their ability to meet demand with on-site solar. He told me data centers can start by reducing their cooling load by two-thirds by using efficiency and waste heat; cooling, he says, accounts for 38% to 47% of electricity demand. Cost-effective energy efficiency can reduce energy demand by one-third, and waste-heat-to-electricity can meet another 25% to 38% of the remaining electric load. “If you cut the cooling load and use waste heat to electricity, then you only need renewable energy and batteries for a maximum of half,” he concluded. “That’s doable.”
If Virginia data centers don’t start taking these kinds of measures, the situation will get worse. This year’s grid strain may be relieved through construction of new generation and transmission infrastructure, but the industry’s staggering growth rate threatens to create future problems. In 2019, when the Sierra Club was urging DEQ to think about the environmental impact of data centers, the industry consumed 12% of Dominion Virginia Energy’s total electric supply. Today, that number has risen to 21%, a figure that does not include the many data centers served by electric cooperatives rather than Dominion.
Just last month, Gov. Youngkin announced that Amazon Web Services will invest $35 billion in new data centers in Virginia, at least doubling Amazon’s existing investments here. By way of thanks, Youngkin wants taxpayers to provide up to $140 million in grant funding to Amazon and extend Virginia’s already-generous tax subsidy program. Ratepayers would also subsidize the build-out by contributing to the cost of new generation and transmission.
Amazon claims to lead the list of tech companies buying renewable energy, though its investments are mostly in other states and abroad. A scathing report in 2019 showed Amazon owned the majority of the data centers in Virginia at that time, but had made few investments in renewable energy here. Since then, Amazon has developed new solar facilities statewide, including enough to power its new Arlington headquarters. But as I discussed in a previous column, all the solar in Virginia would not be enough to make a dent in the energy appetite of Northern Virginia’s data centers, of which Amazon owns more than 100.
I have no special beef with Amazon, but I do think that a rich tech company with pretensions to sustainability leadership should do more to walk the walk in the state that hosts so much of its operations. Surely that includes not relying solely on diesel generators for back-up power at its data centers.
I also have no beef with data centers in general. They provide necessary services in today’s world, and they have to go somewhere. Data centers could be a valuable source of revenue and economic development for Southwest Virginia and other parts of the state that are not grid-constrained, if there are guardrails in place to protect nearby communities and the environment, and if they help rather than hurt our clean energy transition. Right now, none of this is the case.
Unfortunately, Gov. Youngkin not only doesn’t want guardrails, he doesn’t even want to know where and why they are needed. On February 3, a representative of his administration spoke in committee in opposition to legislation filed by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax that would have the Department of Energy and DEQ study the impact of data centers on Virginia’s environment, energy supply and climate goals. The Senate agreed to the study, but a similar bill died in the House, and a House subcommittee killed Petersen’s Senate version Monday on a 2-1 vote. (The vote was later changed to 3-2 when two delegates who missed the meeting, and the discussion, added their votes. Killing a bill in a tiny subcommittee is one way House procedures allow delegates to avoid accountability on controversial issues — but that’s a topic for another day.)
I spoke with Sen. Petersen by phone after the subcommittee hearing. He pointed out that the administration would have been able to shape the study any way the governor wanted, and would have had control over the recommendations as well. Petersen’s conclusion: “He just doesn’t want anyone looking at it.”
Refusing to look at a problem, however, never makes it go away. And in this case, the problem is just getting bigger.
This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on February 15, 2023.
Update: On March 7, DEQ issued a new permit variance limited to data centers in Loudoun County. Although DEQ doesn’t say so, it appears that the original proposal has been modified. The comment period will now run through April 21, and another hearing will be held on April 6.