Editor: Now with coronavirus in our midst, many of us totally rely on our internet connections to get our work done and communicate with colleagues and friends. And in the evening, we’re grateful for the seamless entertainment the internet provides. However, few people realize the extraordinary amount of dirty energy all this activity runs on.
Big data centers, the backbone of the digital economy, need huge amounts of energy. Loudoun County hosts the highest concentration of computing centers in the world: 70 percent of the entire internet content passes through Loudoun. According to a Greenpeace report, the total power demand of the data centers in Loudoun County is almost 4.5 gigawatts—roughly the same power output as nine 500-megawatt coal power plants. These 4.5 gigawatts are largely supplied by Dominion, and largely by fossil fuels. Each of Loudoun over 70 data centers also owns back-up diesel generators. Digital Realty has a whooping 139. None of these generators have pollution controls. Diesel combustion gives rise to ozone which contributes to the region’s smog.
Dominion, the supplier of most of Loudoun County’s electricity, uses about two thirds fossil fuels, one third nuclear power, and less than 4 percent renewable energy. Dominion has used rising data center demand to justify costly new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure, notably a 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline to deliver fracked gas into Virginia and North Carolina. If built, this pipeline would lock Virginia into decades more of dirty energy—despite the recently passed Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020, which directs the construction of 16,100 MW of solar power and onshore wind by 2035, bringing the state’s utility-delivered power to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Ratepayers will be footing much the bill. It has been said that this law will end up preserving through various clauses and loopholes most of Virginia’s coal and natural gas plants and gas pipelines, perhaps for most of their useful lives, as it places no outright moratorium on new fossil fuel construction like pipelines or compression stations.
This is not good enough. Climate scientists have warned that we must phase out fossil fuels and transition to clean energy in the next 12 years to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of total warming.
Loudoun can do better. Iowa also hosts clusters of big data centers and these have significantly invested in clean energy. Wind turbines provide one third of Iowa’s electricity.
Since 2012, 20 large tech companies, including Amazon Web Services, have promised to transition to renewable energy. Already all Apple’s retail stores, data centers and corporate offices worldwide run on 100% clean energy (solar, wind, biogas fuel cells, and micro-hydro generation systems). However, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Dominion’s largest customer, has backslid on its 2014 pledge to use 100% renewable energy to power its cloud.
So what do we do about it? Greenpeace recommends users of the internet platforms that rely on AWS to urge AWS to honor its commitment. (AWS hosts Netflix, Hulu, Slack, Pinterest, AirBnB, Yelp, Zillow, Expedia, instacart, DuoLingo, Soundcloud, the Weather Company and many more.) Amazon Prime members can do likewise.
But Dominion will have to make this possible as Virginia is primarily a regulated energy market. Data centers have few options in Loudoun for buying a renewable supply of energy if not offered by the local utility. (Only Apple has invested in enough renewable energy procurement to match its demand in the region.)
Dominion and Amazon, clearly two main players here, must be forced to step up to their obligations. Otherwise Virginia will make little progress transitioning to clean energy.
Avril Garland, Vienna