Northern Virginia is home to the largest data center hub in the world. Data Center Alley in Ashburn alone boasts 25 million square feet of operation space, according to Loudoun County. But there’s fresh concern over how much power data centers gobble up — and if there’s enough energy to go around.
Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality says it may loosen emissions rules so those server farms can get more power from emergency generators this spring instead of the grid amid energy supply worries.
“Data center operation relies on the use of large amounts of electricity from the grid. DEQ is concerned that the Counties of Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William is an area in which there may not be a sufficient amount of electricity for data centers due to severe, localized constraints in electricity transmission,” the agency said in a public notice asking for comment.
“In particular, the period between March and July 2023 has been identified as a time of potentially acute stress on the transmission capacity of the grid.”
The problem may not be isolated to just this year. DEQ says a “transmission constraint issue” could persist through 2025.
The agency’s proposed order and variance mean data centers in Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties could use their emergency generators to keep things up and running without violating regulations and permit provisions.
Provided they tell the DEQ within three hours of flipping the switch, that is. They also have to provide “a calculation of the emissions of air pollutants” the emergency generators create while they are running “as soon as practicable.”
The proposed order and variance would expire on July 31.
A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for 11 a.m. on February 27 at the DEQ’s regional office at 13901 Crown Ct. in Woodbridge.
Power consumption is a continuing concern for Northern Virginia.
During this Christmas Eve’s record-setting cold snap, PJM Interconnection — which manages electrical movement for 13 mid-Atlantic states plus DC — got overloaded.
PJM issued an emergency alert at 4:20 a.m. on December 24. The staff at the Noman Cole wastewater treatment plant in Lorton cranked up plant’s generators, which took the facility off the grid and helped prevent a blackout in Fairfax County.
“The plant was able to take 5,700 kW of electricity demand off the electric grid for over 14 hours. This amount of power is equivalent to that used by 4,500 households, many of which were decorated with holiday lights,” said a news release.
Energy issues or not, data center growth in Virginia isn’t slowing down any time soon.
Amazon, which already has a huge presence in Northern Virginia independently of its HQ2 project in Arlington, plans to invest $35 billion by 2040 to create data center campuses across Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said in January.
The sites for the new data center campuses have not been decided yet. Virginia expects to see 1,000 new jobs from the investment.
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