Setting us apart from every county in the state of Virginia, the expanse of Prince William County’s landscape stretches from the Bull Run mountains to the tidal basin of the Potomac River. Our county leadership has yet to embrace and capitalize on these assets.
Do not be bamboozled. The introduction of data center campuses outside Prince William County's 2016 Data Center Opportunity Zone is folly. The only ones who will truly benefit are a handful of landowners, Dominion Energy, and the billion- or trillion-dollar profit-making tech companies.
Jim Witham, CEO of GaN Systems, notes the destruction caused by data centers in his 2018 op-ed for industry publication, “Data Center Knowledge.”
“Are we creating a better world through data, but at the same time sowing a few seeds of destruction by not paying appropriate attention to the increasing requirement for -- and inefficiencies around -- the resources data centers require: from the steel, concrete and copper needed to build them to the electricity required to run them all day, every day?” Witham writes. “There may be a heavy bill to pay, for individual businesses and the planet, if we don't rethink the practice and metrics of success and efficiency in data centers – today.”
These facts must not be ignored:
Data centers are bulk-load energy customers like few others. The power needed for just one campus of four buildings is as much as a small city, nearly 200 megawatts.
Unlike private landowners who are required to pay for their own distribution line if they build outside the electrical network, these massive bulk-load customers get a pass, making all of us pay for billions of dollars of transmission lines and substation infrastructure to ensure their bottom-line profits are never impacted.
Data centers’ carbon footprints are matched by few other industries. An update to a 2016 peer-reviewed study found that without dramatic increases in efficiencies, the information and technology industry “could use 20% of the world’s electricity and emit 5.5% of the world’s carbon by 2025.”
What must be addressed are the impacts these bulk-load customers have directly on our communities, on our environment, on our historic assets and on our everyday quality of life.
The Virginia State Corporate Commission legal staff said it best in the Haymarket Amazon Transmission line hearing when they noted the commission “may wish to require [Amazon] to put some of its own skin into the game. Otherwise, the general public [all of us], already burdened by the environmental and aesthetic impacts of otherwise unneeded transmission projects, [are] also burdened with 100% of the otherwise unnecessary costs.”
This statement from the SCC was remarkable and cannot be dismissed by our board of supervisors.
The board’s number one priority is to act on behalf of the people of Prince William County, not for just a few landowners looking to cash out, and certainly not to benefit the wealthiest corporations in the world.
Common sense dictates that compatibility of land uses be a priority. Rural and housing areas are NOT compatible with data centers.
Losing rural crescent acres to data centers is an environmental double whammy. It isn't just the unimaginable amounts of energy and water required to run and cool the massive buildings; it's also the actual physical footprint of millions of square feet of concrete buildings and impervious surfaces, robbing us of green spaces mandatory for our own sustenance.
This folly would introduce obscene levels of carbon while removing the lungs required to filter our environment. These actions will be tantamount to holding a drowning person under water.
The county's Data Center Overlay District was born out of a need to avoid another disaster like the Haymarket Amazon transmission line. All the stakeholders had a seat at the table, including Dominion Energy.
It is incumbent on localities to act responsibly about where data centers are placed. Not only because it is in the best interest of the community, but just as importantly, because the existential threat of climate change demands it.
Schlossberg is executive director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County.