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Ivy Main: “Crisis is not too strong a word to describe the unchecked proliferation of power-hungry data centers in Northern Virginia and around the state”

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by Ivy Main, cross posted from Power for the People VA

Virginia’s 2024 legislative session wrapped up last month without any action to avert the energy crisis that is hurtling towards us.

Crisis is not too strong a word to describe the unchecked proliferation of power-hungry data centers in Northern Virginia and around the state. Virginia utilities do not have the energy or transmission capacity to handle the enormous increases in energy consumption. Dominion Energy projects a doubling of CO2 and a new fossil fuel buildout. Drinking water sources are imperiled.

The governor is unfazed. Legislators are going to study the matter.

 Source: PJM

According to data gathered by regional grid operator PJM, half of the coming surge will occur in parts of Virginia served by Dominion Energy. In its 2023 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), Dominion said it would meet the higher demand by increasing its use of expensive and highly polluting fossil fuels and building new methane gas-fired generating plants. Dominion admitted this will push up carbon emissions at a time when the Virginia Clean Economy Act requires the utility to build renewable energy and cut carbon.

PJM projects equally huge data center growth in areas served by Virginia electric cooperatives, especially Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC). The cooperatives are exempt from most VCEA requirements, and NOVEC buys the bulk of its power from PJM’s fossil fuel-heavy wholesale market. NOVEC’s latest annual report cites load growth of 12% per year, almost entirely from data centers, but fails to even mention the increase in carbon emissions that will accompany that growth.

Undeterred by these alarming statistics, the General Assembly put the growth on steroids with a new round of tax breaks in 2023, while beating back any conditions that might have slowed the onslaught. This year it turned away every bill that would have placed limits on the industry or protected ordinary consumers from the inevitable cost increases.

At the same time, legislators rejected a host of bills that would have enabled more renewable energy development in Virginia and given customers a greater ability to secure their own electricity supply. Together these bills could have brought thousands of megawatts of new solar projects online, lowered demand growth through increased energy efficiency, and prevented the increases in carbon pollution that now appear inevitable.

Legislators did greenlight Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power’s ability to spend their customers’ money on initial development efforts for two nuclear reactors of up to 500 megawatts (MW), one for each utility.

This is not a fix. It is like scheduling knee surgery for next year when you are having a heart attack today.

There is, famously, much doubt about whether small modular reactors (SMRs) will prove viable in the coming decades, but there is no doubt whatsoever that the surge in data center development is happening right now. Virginia’s hoped-for nuclear renaissance would be both too little and too late to meet a data center demand that Dominion says grew by 933 MW in 2023 alone. It’s expected to reach almost 20,000 MW by 2034, the year Dominion’s IRP shows its first small nuclear reactor delivering power.

In rejecting every serious measure to address data center demand, General Assembly leaders said they wanted to wait for a study being conducted this year by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC). What the General Assembly didn’t do was defer new data center development until the study is complete. Another year has to pass before lawmakers will even consider bills addressing land use, power and water concerns around data centers or make it easier for renewable energy to come online.

The consequences of inaction could be deadly. It was only a year ago that Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) proposed allowing certain Northern Virginia data centers to violate their air quality permits by running more than 4,000 highly-polluting diesel generators during periods of grid stress. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the public health disaster we’d have had if 4,000 diesel generators kicked into operation last summer when smoke from Canadian wildfires had already made Virginia air quality hazardous.

DEQ backed off its proposal after a massive public outcry, but the idea is likely still percolating at the agency and might reemerge as an emergency demand-response measure. Even without allowing the generators to provide grid support, more data centers with more diesel generators will worsen air quality with every power outage and every round of equipment testing.

As I argued at the time, the diesel generator fiasco could have been avoided in the first place if data centers had been equipped with renewable energy microgrids and battery storage.  DEQ’s decision not to require battery storage as the first line of defense against power outages deprived Dominion of a demand-response option that would have been far cleaner and more useful than diesel generators.

One of the bills the General Assembly rejected this year would have prohibited the use of backup diesel generators by data centers that receive state tax subsidies, and would have required greater energy efficiency. It was a missed opportunity that means the problem can only get worse in the coming year.

The governor, however, could still avert the crisis by imposing a pause in data center development while the JLARC study is underway. He could accomplish this through an executive order directing the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) not to enter a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with any data center operator until the JLARC study is complete and legislators have had the opportunity to act on it. These MOUs are a requirement for data center operators to access Virginia’s generous tax exemptions. Without the tax subsidies, most data center developers would likely choose not to pursue development here.

This is not a novel idea. Last spring, data center reform advocates asked VEDP to include stringent efficiency and siting conditions in MOUs it entered with Amazon Web Services. They never got an answer.

Down in Georgia, however, legislators just passed a Republican-led bill to suspend that state’s data center tax subsidies for two years pending the results of a study of grid capacity. Legislators expressed concern about Georgia Power’s ability to provide electricity to all the data centers that want to come to the state. And as Republican Sen. John Albers also noted, “The reality is these do not create many jobs. They create big buildings, but they do not create jobs.”

The Georgia tax subsidies were modeled on the ones Virginia implemented in 2010, which pushed our data center growth into overdrive. Isn’t it interesting that Georgia lawmakers so quickly learned a lesson that Virginia leaders refuse to even acknowledge?

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on April 3, 2024.

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