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Why lawmakers might put the brakes on data center development in Virginia

With Republican districts in rural areas pushing back on solar expansion, Democrats may be forced to put the brakes on data center development.
With Republican districts in rural areas pushing back on solar expansion, Democrats may be forced to put the brakes on data center development.

On election night, many politicians were talking about protecting access to abortion, boosting state funds for public education and creating jobs, but one of the most senior members of the Senate – Creigh Deeds – was talking about the weather.

“We have to think about what our responsibility is with respect to this existential issue before us – and that’s climate change," he told reporters. "We experience weather changes that are unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. We’ve got to figure out what we can do.”

Under former Governor Ralph Northam, the legislature approved the Clean Economy Act – making Virginia a leader in the field of green energy, but policy analyst Ivy Main says data centers are putting that package to the test.

“The electricity demand from data centers in Northern Virginia makes up more than 20% of Dominion’s total electric load. It’s a huge amount. They are expecting it to more than quadruple," she says. "PJM, the grid operator, is saying there is so much demand, and we can’t get the renewable energy on fast enough, so utilities have got to keep coal and gas.”

Data centers are massive storage facilities for computers that play a growing part in our lives – demanding electricity to run their machines and to cool them.

“They typically have gigantic fans and/or a huge amount of water for cooling," Main explains. "Some of these data centers can use as much water as a small city, and it can have a real impact on local water resources.”

Under Governor Glenn Youngkin, she says, Virginia has encouraged the industry.

“One of the things that has driven these data centers to locate here is our tax subsidy. And that has amounted, already, to over a billion dollars in tax exemptions, and it will be billions more in coming years.”

So Main argues the state should demand certain things from data centers if they want to operate here.

“In some parts of the world they’re required to be far more efficient than others. Virginia doesn’t have any specific levels. I think that’s one of the things they should be looking at, because that’s the easy, low-hanging fruit is to make them all more efficient, and I’d like the data centers, before they build, to identify where their renewable energy is coming from, and a lot of these data centers do say they’ve got renewable energy goals – sustainability goals.”

Others are content to buy power produced by burning gas and coal. Fortunately, Main says, there are things about which Republicans, Democrats and independents can agree.

“There’s a good deal of support for solar on brownfields and landfills and parking lots, and I would hope that we’ll see that. The governor has signaled that he supports that kind of work.”

Democrats will continue to press for more renewable energy, she says, but Republicans might oppose further expansion of solar arrays onto farmland.

“I think there is as much concern among Republicans – particularly in rural areas – about the growth of this industry to make this an area that is right for a bi-partisan approach.”

And that approach might mean limiting demand by putting the brakes on data center development. She adds that Virginia should start comprehensive planning now, and with Democrats dominating the General Assembly, that process can begin.

“There was a bill to study the data center issue, and it passed the senate unanimously, and then was killed in a house subcommittee. That wouldn’t happen with Democrats in control of both.”

She praises Google for its promise to match any power it buys here with additional, sustainable energy from sources other than Dominion, but she’s not so sure about Amazon, which is poised to spend another $35 billion on data centers in Virginia.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief