data center interior visualizing movement of data

It is said that 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic passes through the borders of Data Center Alley. This beating heart of the internet, located just outside of Washington, D.C., in Northern Virginia, is the largest concentration of data centers in the world. Data centers are 24/7 operations that make the wonders of the internet possible. The explosive growth of internet platforms is fueling dramatic growth in the size and quantity of data centers. And they tend to be located in concentrated areas instead of being spread evenly across the country or globe. Because they are so energy-hungry, they have the potential to shape the energy future of their locale.

Electricity demand is flat or even declining for many utilities. However, the concentrated construction of data centers can reverse that trend in certain areas. Data centers are an energy-intensive business that never sleeps. As a result, they put a huge strain on the local power grid and electricity demand. Unfortunately, the rapid expansion of Data Center Alley is not creating a rapid transition to renewable energy sources. Instead, at a time that is critical to our planet, it is fueling the growth of more fossil-fired power plants.

Since 2009, Greenpeace has been monitoring the energy consumption of the industry and encouraging greater efficiency and renewable energy deployment. They published a report in February 2019 entitled, Clicking Clean Virginia — The Dirty Energy Powering Data Center Alley, that highlights where many tech giants are falling short.

IT Companies & Clean Energy

The good news is that more than 20 of the major internet companies have made public commitments to power their operations with 100 percent renewable energy. Apple, Google, and Facebook, among others, have been negotiating power purchase agreements with wind and solar farms to supply green power to the grid. These IT giants are helping to shape energy policy around the globe by causing local utilities to shift their investment strategies towards renewables.

Despite many IT companies having a 100 percent commitment to renewable energy, this vision isn’t prominent in Virginia where energy demand from data centers increases by 9 to 11 percent annually. Dominion Energy is the primary electric utility for Data Center Alley, and five of Dominion’s 20 largest customers are IT companies with commitments to 100 percent renewable energy. Yet, Dominion’s support of renewable energy is weak.

Apple, with relatively small energy demand in Data Center Alley, has invested in enough renewable energy procurement to match demand in the area. Meanwhile, the rest are significantly behind. According to the Clicking Clean Virginia report, Facebook sources 37 percent renewables, Microsoft 34 percent, and Google a mere 4 percent to power their Virginia operations. Others, such as Salesforce, have put pressure on Dominion, lawmakers, and regulators to prioritize renewables. And Facebook signed a deal with Dominion for 3 gigawatts of solar and wind energy to be complete or under development by 2022.

Dominion Energy’s Sluggish Adoption of Renewable Energy

Unfortunately, Dominion’s power grid is dominated by non-renewable sources of power; renewable energy sources currently provide just 4 percent of the mix. Virginia is a regulated energy market, which results in customers having fewer options about the source of the power they purchase.

The increase in energy demand from Data Center Alley is being used to justify further investment in and reliance on fracked gas, according to Greenpeace. If constructed, the $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline will supply fracked gas into Virginia and North Carolina, increasing reliance on dirty energy sources at a time when urgent action to mitigate climate change is essential. In addition, such projects are very lucrative for utilities because they can pass the bill onto ratepayers who are stuck paying for uneconomical investments. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will also boost the region’s reliance on fracked gas for decades into the future, which has significant environmental and economic impacts.

“Renewables have dramatically declined in cost,” says Gary Cook, the senior corporate campaigner on the Climate & Energy for Greenpeace. “If utilities would get out of the way and detach from their old business model, renewables would displace a lot more fossil fuels. In many markets in the U.S., you have solar plus storage for cheaper than [natural] gas, especially for peak power.”

Growing Pressure on Amazon Web Services

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is one of the clearest examples of a big corporation largely dropping the ball on its renewable energy commitment. “Amazon’s growth has been dramatic, and they haven’t kept pace with their supply of renewable energy,” says Cook. “If you are an Amazon customer, that demand is fueling their growth.”

AWS increased its already immense operations in Virginia by 59 percent in just over two years. This means the company ends up indirectly supporting the new pipeline and fossil fuel infrastructure, especially given Dominion’s power mix. AWS did make some announcements in 2015 and 2016 for new renewable energy capacity, but was quiet for over two years until it announced three new wind projects in 2019 in Sweden, Ireland, and the U.S.

Moving Forward

Complex issues do not have simple solutions. By supporting policies that, in turn, encourage renewable energy growth, we can help drive the market for cleaner energy. One of the easiest and most effective actions we can take is to encourage IT giants to honor their renewable energy commitments and praise leaders in the movement for positive progress.

Consider taking your business elsewhere when a tech company slips behind — and let them know why you are switching. Amazon, in particular, has been under scrutiny for many aspects of its business, including the carbon footprint of its popular two-day shipping, excessive use of packaging, and its sluggish adoption of renewable energy.

Top climate scientists have recently warned that global emissions need to be cut in half by 2030 to prevent the most extreme climate impacts. Tech giants are increasingly using more energy and need to honor their renewable energy commitments at this crucial time in the climate crisis.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.