Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Data Centers far from Clean

According to Greenpeace Northern Virginia is home to the greatest concentration of data centers in the world. In 2018 Loudoun Country boasted that up to 70% of global internet traffic passes through its “Data Center Alley” on a daily basis, and since then Prince William and Loudoun counties have both  aggressively expanded the number of data centers in their counties. That amount of internet traffic and advanced computation requires massive amounts of electricity; the majority of it is provided by Dominion Energy, a utility that continues to rely on fossil fuels and nuclear for power generation, with only 7% of electricity generated from renewable sources in 2020 (see below for EIA’s breakdown of renewable sources).

Nondescript massive boxes of concrete with limited parking is  what the technology industry looks like. Someday technology will pass these boxes by and they will be the empty, decaying hulks to remind us of this age. Much as the steel mill have left their permanent mark on western Pennsylvania.

For now, these data canters are resource intensive- converting  massive amounts of water and electricity into computational power. There is a certain irony that the technology sector heavily publicizes its sustainability initiatives and plan to address climate change using artificial intelligence; when the processing demands (their energy and water consumption) of developing artificial intelligence models is massive.

A team at the University of Massachusetts lead by EmmaStrubell found in 2019 that a single NLP model produced more than 660,000 pounds of CO2 emissions. Applel’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are much bigger and constantly evolving operations their energy consumption is a highly guarded corporate secret. Already the carbon footprint of the internet/computational infrastructure has surpassed the aviation industry at its height and researchers are forecasting that electricity demand of data centers will increase 15 fold by 2030.

While US electricity consumption has remained effectively flat, Dominion which supplies the bulk of Northern Virginia data centers reported to investors that data centers are the primary driver of its electricity demand, growing state demand at an annual increase of 11% and forecasted to continue as planned data centers continue through the pipeline. Electrification of the transportation sector as planned in the Metropolitan Washington 2030 Climate and Energy Action Plan  which outlines actions the region should take to meet its shared climate mitigation and resiliency goals. This will require the grid to supply even more electric power at the same time that the grid will be decarbonizing under the Virginia Clean Economy Act. This will increase the electricity cost for all Virginians as the newly built infrastructure is incorporated into the grid. The data centers pay a lower rate per kilowatt hour and when their life cycle is over, then they will leave Virginians to foot the bill for the increased generating capacity. 

Natural gas and nuclear power provided 90% of Virginia's in-state electricity net generation in 2020. Renewable resources provided almost 7% of Virginia's total electricity generation in 2020. Biomass fuels are the largest share of the state's renewably-sourced electricity generation. In 2020, biomass fueled about 3% of the state's total net generation. Virginia has 25 conventional hydroelectric power plants and 2 pumped-storage hydroelectric facilities. The conventional hydroelectric plants typically produce almost 2% of Virginia's in-state generation. That leave about 2% from solar. 

Virginia's in-state electricity generation increased by 40% between 2010 and 2020. However, electricity consumption in the state grew faster and  is still greater than generation, and Virginia receives additional power from the two regional grids. We are losing the race to produce enough power for the growing data center sector while simultaneously trying to decarbonize the grid.

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