Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Virginia Needs to Manage the Data Centers

Electricity demand typically inches higher slowly with both economic growth and population growth, less any gains in efficiency. Nationally, electric sales grew just about 5% in the past decade. However, electric growth has been surging in some areas.


from Dominion IRP 2023

Data centers are one of the biggest new electric  power consumers, and demand from them could double by 2030. Some new data centers that have been requesting grid connections from Dominion are as large as 500 megawatts. That is as much as it takes to power hundreds of thousands of homes according to the  Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit researcher and advisory. 

In Virginia, Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility, has connected 75 new data centers since 2019. Statewide electricity sales are up 7% so far this year which is not quite over. According to Dominion’s  IRP, they expect that electric demand to grow by about 85% over the next 15 years. This is unpresented growth in electric demand.


from Dominion IRP 2023

While that is happening, Virginia needs to meet the requirements of the VCEA. In 2020, the General Assembly passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), which mandated a goal of 100% zero-carbon energy generation by 2050 and prescribed increasingly strict Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) for Virginia's investor-owned electric utilities.

Under the VCEA is required by law to make the transition from conventional power plants fueled by coal and natural gas to cleaner forms of energy such as wind and solar. Dominion is also required to provide electricity to Grid operators across the U.S. have been warning that power-generating capacity is struggling to keep up with demand for a transition to electric and digital industrialization. The resulting  gaps  in supply could lead to rolling blackouts during hot or cold weather extremes.

While many data centers have made clean energy and sustainability commitments, there is no way to clearly evaluate these claims or ensure they are aligned with the VCEA’s  plans to decarbonize the grid due to non-disclosure agreements and general secrecy around the industry. However, it is clear from Dominion’s 2023 IRP the the power for the data centers is coming from elsewhere- power purchases. As seen in the chart above the states in the PJM with power to sell are West Virginia and Pennsylvania. That power has to be delivered to Virginia and  the public is being asked to subsidize new transmission infrastructure and bear the burden of the compromised viewsheds and land seizures as well as compromise on Virginia’s clean energy and conservation goals in order to meet the massive electricity demand caused by one private industry.

Zoning and land use have always been left up to the counties. It is clear that there is no limit to the desirability of data centers to county supervisors and landowners. The counties of Prince William and Loudoun and increasingly our neighbors have been blinded by the windfall profits to the landowners and the prospect of increased tax revenue, but these windfall profits come at the cost of the data centers’ power demand flat profile, the need for expanding the grid. We have granted data center companies  control over our environment. We are now getting ready to build more gas fired electricity generation facilities to serve them. The data centers will degrade our land and water resources and increase power and water costs for all Virginians.

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