They call them the "factories of the information age." Data centres make it possible for millions of consumers to listen to music, shop - even edit critical documents on the fly. But those conveniences do not come without a cost. A new report released Wednesday by Greenpeace outlines the environmental costs of all that convenience. particularly in the Washington region - home to more data centres than anywhere else in the country.
The centres have been a huge boon for the Northern Virginia economy and for Loudoun County, in particular, home to the greatest number. County leaders brag that roughly 70 percent of the world's internet traffic moves through Loudoun alone. But the report contends the centres' operations pose environmental threats and could contribute to global warming. Data centres, with their 24/7 operations, are huge consumers of electricity in a state where the dominant utility, Dominion Energy, has been slow to embrace renewable energy, the report said.
"With the tremendous amount of energy needed to power data centres and their rapid growth, how we power this digital infrastructure is rapidly becoming critical in determining whether we will be able to stave off climate change in time to avoid planetary catastrophe," the Greenpeace report said.
On average, data centres use enough electricity to power at least 5,000 homes, according to Dominion.
The report also contends that technology companies, particularly Amazon Web Services, which has rapidly expanded its Northern Virginia presence. need to do more to promote renewable energy sources. Amazon committed to moving to 100 percent renewable energy to run its data centres, but the report contends the company appears to be wavering from its pledge. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post),
As for the state's main utility, Greenpeace said less than 5 percent of Dominion's electricity comes from renewable resources such as wind and solar. Several large tech companies, including Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google have committed powering their digital infrastructure with 100 percent renewable energy, which has pushed utilities in others states such as Utah and Nevada to diversify their energy portfolios.
But in Virginia, such efforts have been slow to take root, the report said. Instead, Dominion has continued to focus on fossil fuels.
"Dominion has . . . used the rapidly growing electricity demand from data centres in Virginia as a central justification for the construction of a $7-billion new fracked gas pipeline," the report said. "Dominion is depending on the guaranteed rate of return for Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) as an important new revenue driver for the company in 2019 and beyond as it expects to pass the costs of its construction on to ratepayers over the next 20 years."
Officials from Dominion said they have worked to diversify their mix.
"A vast number of the world's data centres reside in our service area, and it is our responsibility to not only provide them with reliable energy, but to help them meet their renewable energy goals," said Keith Windle, vice president of business development for Dominion. "Through our expansion of renewables in Virginia, commitment to 3,000 [megawatts] of solar and wind in development by 2022, and the creation of multiple renewable rate tariffs, we offer a menu of renewable programs that support our customers' current and future energy needs in a reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible manner."
Even so, the utility company - and Virginia - have lagged behind others in the embrace of renewable energy. Company officials declined to offer a breakdown of where Dominion gets it electricity from, including what percentage comes from renewable energy sources. However, the Greenpeace report said the estimated 5 percent of the electricity Dominion gets from renewable sources is only a small increase from 2012, when the company said it got 3 percent of its energy from renewables.
Dominion officials say by 2025, roughly 15 percent of its power will come from renewables - a significant increase, but still far behind states like Nevada and Iowa, also home to data centers.
While major tech companies including Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google, all have a strong Virginia presence, the Greenpeace report focuses in particular on Amazon and its cloud computing operations.
"Since 2017, AWS appears to have turned its back on its 100 percent renewable commitment, increasing its already massive operations in Virginia by 59 percent, without any additional renewable energy supply," the report said.
Amazon criticized the report as inaccurate and said its commitment to clean energy has been unwavering.
"Greenpeace has chosen to report inaccurate data about the energy consumption and renewable mix of AWS' infrastructure and did not perform proper due-diligence by fact checking with [Amazon web services] before publishing," a company spokesman said in a statement.
The spokesman said Amazon has been a major investor in solar projects in Virginia. Those investments include six solar plants, five of which opened at the end of 2017, according to the company's sustainability website.
The company added that it is committed to reaching its goal of 100 percent renewable energy across its global network, though it did not specify a timetable for doing so.
While warning of the dangers of continued reliance on fossil fuels, the report said there are ways to move to a future that includes greater reliance on renewable energy. Tech companies can continue to push with public commitments to renewable energy. They can also support legislation to expand access to renewable energy, including opening the market to competitive service providers offering renewable energy.
© The Washington Post 2019