by Carey Glenn
As an internet user but not a die-hard techie, you’d be forgiven for never thinking about the physical logistics of cloud computing. Indeed, the name itself immediately conjures the image of the opposite: something ephemeral, low-impact, all-natural, not solid. So it may be surprising to hear that “the cloud” is actually run through brick-and-mortar data centers, essentially teched-up warehouses the size of Costco, that largely exist in Virginia. Loudoun County, Virginia, to be specific — a wealthy D.C. suburb that is home to “the largest number of internet, satellite, and defense companies in the nation.” This quiet county is host to facilities for not only intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security, but also the similarly secretive “Data Center Alley,” the world’s largest concentration of data centers.
Despite the lack of publicly available information about these data centers (many are even housed in unmarked buildings), a smattering of press releases, news reports, and Loudoun County Economic Development materials make it clear that companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and DuPont Fabros are present there. Collectively, these companies own the majority of the most popular websites on the internet, including Netflix, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Airbnb. Up to 70% of the world’s internet traffic passes through these Virginia data centers every single day. Here, amongst the McMansions of D.C. bureaucrats, stands The Cloud — the unassuming infrastructure that powers the internet as we know it.
Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the leading supplier of cloud services, with an estimated third of internet users accessing an AWS cloud-hosted website each day, which is made possible by AWS essentially renting out partial use of their Virginia data centers. When a budding internet company joins the AWS cloud, they are linked up to and then powered by these massive AWS data centers. AWS only charges them for the amount of power and corresponding infrastructure they actually use, which removes a huge economy-of-scale problem for tech startups. As a result, startups don’t have to build a multi-million dollar data center from the foundation, and are able to scale up much more quickly than they would otherwise. In this way, Virginia’s data centers are the muscle behind much of Silicon Valley, quietly helping it to build its reputation as a job-creator and the world’s hub for disruptive innovation.
Why aren’t these data centers located close-by in California, then? Besides cheaper land, access to D.C., and the existing materials and infrastructure to properly power and run a data center, one of the big appeals of having data centers in Virginia is the state’s extremely low cost of electricity within the commercial sector. While the national average is 10.15 cents per unit, Virginia’s is 8.15, giving it the 6th-lowest commercial energy cost in the country. Of course, placing the most energy-intensive part of a web company’s business in a place where energy costs are low certainly makes sound business sense. The only problem is, that cheap energy comes from Dominion Resources.
Dominion Resources has been rated by Ceres, an NGO dedicated to expanding the adoption of sustainability practices in business, as one of the least green utilities companies in the country. Dominion relies heavily on coal plants and fracking to supply their energy, and they do not plan on slowing down any time soon – they are pushing forward to build a new massive fracked gas pipeline, the so called Atlantic Coast Pipeline, whose construction would cut across the entire state of Virginia beginning in 2017.
Dominion is also currently embroiled in a fight with environmentalists over the disposal of the byproducts from their coal plants, having recently secured a permit from Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality to release these toxic chemicals into the James River at levels triple those considered harmful to aquatic health. What’s more, in the NAACP’s Coal Blooded report from 2012, which investigated the role of coal-fired power plants in inequitable health outcomes for communities of color and low-income communities, Dominion was given an overall “F” rating. After looking at the health impacts of its coal-powered plants (Dominion’s plants evaluated in Virginia received the grades of F, D-, D, D+, and C+), the report ultimately ranked Dominion as the 6th most unjust of 59 companies that were evaluated.
Unfortunately, Virginians and Virginia-based companies really have no choice but to buy their electricity from Dominion — it is the ninth largest utilities company in the world and holds regulated monopoly status over the entire state. The heft of Dominion’s influence across Virginia allows the company to make it as difficult as possible for other, smaller, alternative utilities companies to challenge their singularity. The foundation of the problem lies in the cozy relationship that Dominion has with Virginia’s government and regulatory agencies.
According to University of Virginia political analyst and professor Larry Sabato, “no single company even comes close to Dominion in terms of its wide-ranging influence and impact on Virginia politics and government”. AP Reporters have said “Dominion is without peer in terms of political sway in Virginia and routinely gets friendly legislation passed with broad bipartisan support.” This broad influence is likely due to Dominion’s taking full strategic advantage of Virginia’s unique campaign finance laws.
Virginia is one of only six states in the nation that allows corporations to contribute an unlimited amount of money to state-level political campaigns, and Dominion “is the single biggest donor to state-level politicians, as well as one of the biggest gift givers” to politicians in Virginia. In perhaps the most damning indicator of the depth of the influence that Dominion has bought with the Virginia government, the corporation paid for the chief of the Department of Environmental Quality to vacation at the Master’s golf tournament in 2013, even picking up Chief’s $1200 pub tab.
When questioned about the size and nature of their monetary contributions, Dominion spokesman David Botkins has said “politics is not a spectator sport. Our employees and our company participate in [it] just like every other industry, business, nonprofit, and organization out there. That’s how democracy works.” Although buying favor with the chief of the main regulatory body for your company doesn’t exactly scream “democracy at work,” it seems to have been effective for Dominion. With the government wrapped up in Dominion’s grasp, it seems unlikely that the state of Virginia will compel Dominion to green their act any time soon.
This is why tech companies with a presence in Data Center Alley are Virginia’s great hope for compelling Dominion to go green. Although Dominion is now exempt from reporting their biggest customers, as of 2014, 6 of Dominion’s 20 biggest customers were data centers in Data Center Alley. These data centers consume so much energy, in fact, that when ranking the electricity demand of the top 10 countries in the world, “cloud computing” (including data centers and networks, but excluding user-end devices) would rank in 6th place, below Russia and above Germany.
At the same time, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, and Google have all committed themselves to running their businesses on 100% renewable energy. If these tech companies that have committed to powering themselves with sustainable energy joined forces, they would be able to take on Dominion Resources and the Virginia government in a way that could not easily be ignored.
Dominion’s power is deeply entrenched in the political process of Virginia, and it will take catalyzation, perhaps by outside power players, to move the tide towards justice. The sustainable innovation that these companies promote shouldn’t just be limited to California, and furthermore these companies should be actively working to ensure that their Silicon Valley-based innovation doesn’t harm people in places outside the bubble.
The state’s inherent political problems and Dominion’s energy use certainly is not these companies’ fault, but they do have the weight, power, and influence to start something great in Virginia. The longer they fail to act, the more complicit they become in Dominion’s environmental injustice. Moving forward on climate change action will require collaboration and communication and new partnerships. If tech companies choose to engage with and take on Dominion and Virginia policymakers, they have the opportunity to create change within one of the most powerful polluters in the South.