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Storage Sites for Internet Data Devouring Electricity - Each One Uses Power for 25,000 Homes

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Stretching across Loudoun and Fairfax counties is an area in Northern Virginia, known as Data Center Alley. Large, concrete buildings dot the landscape, full of servers, which route 70 percent of the world's internet traffic. 

"When you talk about something happening online or happening in the Cloud, what you're talking about is something that's actually happening that's powered by a physical data center. It's actually a building," explained Jon Hukill, communications director for the Data Center Coalition. 

The average American household has at least 22 devices connected to the internet. They've expanded from phones and computers to smart TVs, lights, and appliances. 

Our digital society creates so much data that massive storage facilities are now needed to process and house it all. 

"Rather than have each individual business or individual internet user have their own server for their data, a data center aggregates all of our collective computing needs in one facility. And by doing so, that facility is secure, reliable, and more efficient," Hukill tells CBN News. 

While data centers provide a critical service, they also require a tremendous amount of electricity. 

"It is not uncommon for a data center to require as much power as, let's say, 25,000 homes," explained Dominion Power Spokesman Aaron Ruby.

Affordable and reliable power helped draw these facilities to Virginia, their predicted growth, however, is raising concern we could reach a point when utilities, and even the power grid itself, won't be able to keep up.

"Think of the last five years, basically the power demand from data centers and our service territory, doubled. And looking forward over the next 15 years, we projected that power demand from data centers is likely to quadruple," said Ruby.

Despite the growth forecast, he wants to assure Virginia residents that plans are in place to deal with this growing need.

"If power demand is going to nearly double over 15 years, then that means we need to nearly double our power supply over the next 15 years. Which means we need to build a significant amount of new power plants. Additionally, we need to build a significant amount of new power lines, transmission lines, distribution lines, and substations, to be able to deliver nearly twice as much electricity to our customers," Ruby told CBN News.

He says Dominion's plan for the future relies on a mix of energy sources, with 95 percent of them being carbon free. 

This includes the country's largest offshore wind project, the second-largest solar fleet, expanding battery storage, and exploring next generation nuclear power. Only five percent of new energy will come from natural gas. 

Still, these major grid updates cost money, and some of Dominion's residential customers don't want to pay the data center industry's power bill. 

"The truth is that if you remove the data center industry, Virginia is not experiencing this explosive kind of transmission need, this need for new generation," said Elena Schlossberg, executive director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County. 

She points out that while data centers pay for their power use, taxpayers are on the hook for financing the new infrastructure. 

"All of us, the residents, are covering the cost of these massive transmission lines, and at some point, we're going to need to build all the generation. What is happening in Virginia is not normal," Schlossberg told CBN News. 

She worries that being the "Data Center Capital of the World" will eventually destroy her state. 

"These don't belong near homes, they don't belong near national parks and they certainly don't belong in your drinking water supply watersheds. Something has to change," Schlossberg said. 

For example, a lawsuit is underway against a complex planned across from Manassas National Battlefield Park. Dubbed the "Digital Gateway," many area property owners have agreed to sell their properties, rather than live next door to such a massive industrial development. 

"Data centers are destroying communities. They are taking too much electricity, too much fossil fuel, too much water, and too much land, and at some point, we all have to be a part of that conversation, because we're sacrificing the real world for the digital world," Schlossberg explained. 

When asked about the costs for the planned grid updates, Dominion's spokesperson responded that customers' monthly power bills will only go up by three percent per year – a rate lower than historic inflation. He adds, the largest cost increase isn't due to data center growth. 

"The vast majority of those costs are due to the clean energy transition that we're undertaking in Virginia," said Ruby.

Meanwhile, Hukill says the data center industry is always looking for ways to be more efficient. 

"This is going to be an industry that's with us for a long time, and so data centers want to be good neighbors, they want to be engaged in the communities that they're part of," he explained. 

While these experts say it's easy to point fingers at the data center industry, consumers continue to drive its explosive growth. And that's only expected to get bigger as research predicts data demand globally in 2030 will be 10 times the amount needed at the start of this decade. 

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About The Author

Caitlin Burke Headshot

Caitlin Burke serves as National Security Correspondent and a general assignment reporter for CBN News. She has also hosted the CBN News original podcast, The Daily Rundown. Some of Caitlin’s recent stories have focused on the national security threat posed by China, America’s military strength, and vulnerabilities in the U.S. power grid. She joined CBN News in July 2010, and over the course of her career, she has had the opportunity to cover stories both domestically and abroad. Caitlin began her news career working as a production assistant in Richmond, Virginia, for the NBC affiliate WWBT