A Gigawatt and Growing: Data Center Industry Pushing Toward Greener Energy

One of Loudoun’s biggest industries is also one the world’s biggest energy users.

The numbers around Loudoun’s data center sector—the biggest data center market in the country—are staggering and constantly growing. Loudoun is home to more than 70 data centers, and according to the county Department of Economic Development they cover 10.5 million square feet, with millions more on the way.

About 70 percent of all the internet traffic in the world travels through Ashburn.

They are a major leg in the county’s budget, putting little burden on county services but expected to bring in more than $200 million in local tax revenues in the current fiscal year. To make that much from local real estate taxes, Loudoun County would have to raise its tax rate 25 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The industry also has been a major driver of increasing real estate prices in Loudoun, with developers gobbling up vast tracts of land and in some cases paying more than a million dollars an acre for it.

And they are famously one of the most electricity-hungry industries in the world. How much energy does Loudoun’s data center industry use? About enough to power a time-traveling DeLorean—or a medium-sized city.

The largest electric utility in Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power, powers the state’s data center industry. Dominion Director for Customer Service and Strategic Partnerships Stan Blackwell oversees the utility’s work to provide that electricity. And he said the demand for energy for the data center industry in Virginia has surpassed a million watts.

“Our actual load in Dominion’s service territory [in Virginia] is over a gigawatt of load,” Blackwell said. “… the majority of that is centered around Loudoun County.”

And, he said, the industry is well on its way to two gigawatts, expected to pass that mark in the next five years.

Dominion Media/Community Relations Manager Charles E. “Chuck” Penn Sr. said the utility estimates 1 megawatt of capacity is enough to power 250 homes. That means two gigawatts would be enough to power roughly a half-million homes—more homes than there are in any single city or county in Virginia. By comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated about 411,000 housing units in Fairfax County in 2016.

RagingWire Vice President of Data Center Operations Phillip Sandino said when his company is looking for a place to put a new data center campus, it looks at workforce, fiber optic connections—and how quickly a utility can bring that massive energy demand to the site.

Sandino has seen the data center power issue from both sides. RagingWire is one of the major players in Loudoun’s data center market, and before working there, Sandino spent 13 years at Dominion Energy as the executive responsible for running power generation facilities, liquid natural gas operations, and in charge of key customer accounts.

“For data centers that can pop out of the ground in nine months, 10 months, it’s a very tight timeframe for utilities to match,” Sandino said. “So, pre-planning, and site selection and just partnership with the utility is required to align their timeframes with ours.”

“Many times in the data center industry, developers or companies will come to us and say, we’re looking at these five or six properties, can you give me an electric story on them,” Blackwell said. “‘How long will it take for you to serve this piece of property and what infrastructure is required’ … because ultimately, for the data center industry, time to market’s most important.”

Energy Efficiency, Gigawatts at Time

As one of the country’s largest electric companies, Dominion has faced criticism for its reliance on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, especially around plans to lay new pipelines through unwilling communities. According to 2016 figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal remains the largest source of electricity in Virginia, followed by nuclear power—although not all of that is Dominion.

And the utility must work in an unpredictable regulatory environment, particularly as the federal government has frozen the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. But Dominion has also launched programs to shift toward renewable energy, including solar farms, offshore wind farms, and even capturing methane from pig farms to burn for energy. The company’s 15-year outlook filed with the state shows it building more renewable generation and retiring older fossil-fuel facilities, including switching off more than 1,200 megawatts of generation at five facilities this year, to be held in reserve.

“A large number of customers across all segments are interested in renewable products, and Dominion is focused on offering customers choices,” Blackwell said. Dominion offers a more expensive rate for customers who wish to see their home or business powered with renewables.

“We also will work directly with customers to build dedicated facilities for them with all costs being directed to them, so Dominion has options for customers to have renewable power,” Blackwell said. “Could we have more? Yes, we could, and we’re always looking to develop additional solutions for customers.”

And despite the massive amount of energy data centers use, they’ve gotten steadily more energy efficient, driven to keep their costs low and meet the demands of customers who want green-friendly electricity and lower prices. And in the data center industry, the most efficient data centers are the biggest.

“We are an aggregation of energy use, [which] nobody really understands well,” Sandino said. “It’s easy to say, ‘well, you use so much power, that’s bad,’ but really they’re aggregations at scale of what used to be distributed in people’s offices.”

In 2016, a study by the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that as data centers centralize and the industry that once lived largely in office closets shifts to “hyperscale” centers, energy consumption actually goes down, an economy of scale seen in many industries.

And in September, a group of technology companies including Adobe, eBay, and Equinix asked Dominion and the State Corporation Commission to consider the demand for renewable energy in their planning.

“I think the bringing everybody together and having scale, it definitely pays off for everybody, and that’s the point,” Sandino said. “We want to be competitive, and being competitive in this market means having less energy usage, because that’s passed right on to the client.”

“Loudoun County as a whole has done a great job attracting one of the fastest-growing business sectors in the world, and we’re just happy to be a part of that success,” Blackwell said.

rgreene@loudounnow.com

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