Thursday, January 15, 2015

Dominion Power Lines through the Rural Crescent

Fighting to protect the Rural Crescent and our way of life in Western Prince William County is a never ending battle. The latest threat: a new power line controversy has emerged. This time Dominion is proposing a 230 kilovolt double circuit transmission line that would start at an existing power facility southeast of the Interstate 66-Prince William County Parkway intersection in Gainesville and go west 6 miles before turning north, and traveling west of route 15 and cutting a path through the rural crescent for about 12 miles or so. The proposed transmission line would be run on steel poles, with an average height of 110 feet, and require 100-120 foot wide path for the right of way, according to information available from Dominion Power. A Town Hall meeting at Battlefield High School on Monday evening drew about a thousand people. 

The community is up in arms about running the above adding this level of infrastructure in the form of ground transmission lines through the bucolic Rural Crescent. This will not only damage the beauty and integrity of the Rural Crescent, but we will have to pay for the infrastructure in our monthly power bills. According to the Prince William County Planning website, these power lines are for a data center at 15505 John Marshall Highway in Haymarket called "Midwood Center" and it is rumored to be built for Amazon. Data centers are the massive banks of computer servers that hold the internet together. Data centers create and operate the “cloud,” specifically, Amazon and others lease computing capacity. These facilities are primarily powered from the grid, but generators and batteries are always necessary to provide backup power if the grid goes down.

Though we do not generally think of it that way, a data center is an industrial use, not a commercial use in its need for square footage and power with a very large carbon footprint, diesel generators and fuel storage tanks. The grass roots group Protect PWC should not only be concerned about the appearance of the power towers, they should also be concerned about what this will ultimately do to our power costs. We all get to pay for the infrastructure in our monthly electric bills. Data centers may be industrial in their energy and environmental footprint, but they employ very few people and pay only limited taxes.

Amazon already runs data centers in Northern Virginia. Reportedly there are eight. In Manassas alone Amazon has two data centers that are run out of three buildings that look like large warehouses with green, corrugated sides. Air ducts big enough to accommodate industrial cooling systems run along the rooftops; large diesel generators sit in rows around the outside to ensure an uninterrupted power supply and internet. In 2010, Amazon was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for installing and operating diesel generators without the required permits. Great, so they are not even good neighbors.

Data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy. According to the New York Times data centers are typically run at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand, so capacity is always available. As a result, data centers can waste the majority of the electricity they pull off the grid. The New York Times had the consulting firm McKinsey analyze energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 - 12 % of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their systems.

In 2013 data centers used 2.25% of the power generated in the United States, and data center power use is reportedly growing at 20% a year and expected to reach 153 billion kilowatt hours in 2020. Energy costs (and security) are the biggest decision factor in locating energy-hungry data centers. Virginia, with its low cost nuclear and coal powered electricity is an attractive location for a power hungry use. However, the arrival of the data centers combined with the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on electrical power plants, our cost of electricity will not be low for long.

In June 2014 EPA announced their Clean Power Plan; carbon emissions regulations for existing power plants. A state-specific compliance plan is due to the EPA for review and approval in June 2016. Virginia is currently at 1,438 lbs. of CO2 emitted per megawatt hour of electricity generated and we need to be at 991 lbs. of CO2 per megawatt hour in 2020 and 810 lbs. of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity generated in 2030 to be in compliance with the EPA Clean Power Plan mandate. In the proposed regulations, 2012 is the actual baseline year chosen by the EPA to calculate the interim and final CO2 goals for each state. However, with Amazon building data centers that each use more power than thousands of homes, added since the base year, we will have to accommodate their demand in our plan.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the State Corporation Commission, worked with a consulting team to determine whether Virginia could comply with the proposed EPA Clean Power Plan. They identified four scenarios that allowed Virginia to meet the 2020 goal of 991 lbs. of CO2 per megawatt hour. All four of the successful scenarios include major increases in the use of natural gas fueled electrical generation and a need for expansion of the existing natural gas pipeline network into the Commonwealth and reduction in coal generated capacity as well as significant increases in the amount of renewable energy in the power generation base.

Our existing coal fired power plants will have to be replaced. The simple truth is that coal emits 2,268 lbs. of CO2 per Megawatt hour while the natural gas fired turbines emits 903 lbs. of CO2 per Megawatt hour. As the EPA mandated cap in CO2 emissions assigned to us is forcing us to build new low CO2 power generation capacity, Amazon and other data centers reeves up the demand for electricity without creating more than a handful of jobs or significantly paying for the infrastructure necessary to provide that low CO2 electricity: the power lines, lower CO2 electrical generating capacity, the gas pipeline necessary to generate more power at lower CO2, the renewable no CO2 generation etc. Virginia gets to pay for that in increased power costs.

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