Loudoun County and Metamucil have something in common: fiber. Lots and lots of fiber. In fact, the 522-square-mile county has the highest concentration of fiber communications lines in the United States, maybe the world. And while Metamucil’s fiber supplement keeps digestive systems, um, flowing, the county’s massive data centers keep the continent’s communications systems—internet, email, cell phone, landline—flying smoothly through the planet’s ether.
This region is where 70 percent of the globe’s internet traffic flows every day. Because online data isn’t really stored in a “cloud,” you need a physical location for computer servers. Buddy Rizer, executive director of the county’s economic-development authority, coined “Data Center Alley” some 13 years ago as branding shorthand, akin to California’s Silicon Valley.
Data centers house all of the high-tech hardware that receives, stores, and sends electronic information. They take up some 26 million square feet in the county, most of it concentrated in Ashburn and southeastern Loudoun. These 115 or so buildings—mostly somber, gray, and Brutalist—average 300,000 square feet, about two and a half times the size of the Dulles Walmart Supercenter.
And they more than earn their keep. The businesses within Data Center Alley account for, according to Rizer’s figures, 30 percent of the county’s annual total tax revenue—they bring in $586 million. For every dollar spent, data centers return about $13. They bring in enough money to cover the entire operational budget for Loudoun County government, not counting the public school system.
Loudoun County is already the fastest-growing data-center location on the planet. And there are 15 to 16 new centers planned for next year. That’s in addition to this year’s 18 new arrivals.
Credit it all to your grandmother’s email provider, AOL. Yes, America Online. In 1996, when an upstart called Google was fighting AskJeeves.com for the top search-engine spot (look it up, kids), AOL moved from Vienna to a new facility in Dulles. It was soon followed by MCI Communications Corp.
What brought them to the region remains the same today: cheap land and plenty of it, plus pioneering tax breaks. “Fifteen years ago in Virginia, we were one of the only states that had sales tax incentives,” says Rizer. “Now, two-thirds of the states have them.” But they’re playing catch-up.
Electricity bills are reasonable here, too. In Ashburn, the cost of electricity is 20 percent less than the national average. Which matters at these levels of energy consumption.
In 2018, Data Center Alley hit an energy benchmark so outrageous, it echoed a key plot point in Back to the Future. In order to return teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) to 1985 in a DeLorean time machine, mad scientist Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) needed a “flux capacitor” (this is not a thing) to generate 1.21 gigawatts of power to send the car hurtling back to the, yes, future. A suspiciously convenient lightning strike sparks the machine. Without the benefit of lightning, the county hit the 1-gigawatt consumption mark in 2018 and since then has gone high enough to send Marty McFly even further into the future—a mind-blowing 1.4 gigawatts.
How much is 1 gigawatt? It’s a billion watts, that’s what. A single gigawatt can light 300,000 homes.
What do the data centers do with all that power? Much of it goes toward keeping the buildings cool, which explains why they aren’t tall. It’s more efficient to cool a squat building with few windows. An overheated computer is not cool, so the air-conditioning is on 24/7/365. The humidity also has to be controlled, adding to the power usage. Imagine working in a cool, dry cave.
For nearly 15 years, a data center has been getting built somewhere in Northern Virginia every. Single. Day. That accounts for 61 percent of all data-center construction in the country, says Rizer.
The farms and vineyards in other parts of Loudoun County should be fine, though. Rizer says the industry is winding down, finally, and the county is running out of room for massive campuses. “We have no inclination at all,” he says, “to have data centers in the western part of the county.”