The following article is based on email alerts from PEC’s Julie Bolthouse and Kevin Kask. To learn more, visit pecva.org/blackwell.
Two of the biggest corporate interests in Virginia have eyes on Warrenton. Late in 2021, Amazon bought a 41-acre parcel for a potential new data center. The property on Blackwell Road, behind Country Chevrolet, on the northeast side of Warrenton, is zoned Industrial and allows data center development with a special use permit approved by the Town of Warrenton. This spring, Amazon submitted its special use permit application to the Town and a “load letter” to Dominion Energy, requesting service for a specified power load to support the proposed data center. The large load request triggered Dominion Energy’s plans for a new substation and 230-kV transmission line to serve the potential data center.
Dominion has shared many transmission line route options from the two closest substations—one in Warrenton, off of Meetze Rd, next to the Central Sports Complex; the other is the Wheeler Substation, in Prince William County near Vint Hill (see map). Dominion representatives have been very clear that the Amazon data center is the reason the utility company would be obligated to build a new transmission line to the north side of Town at this time.
With an average height of around 110 feet, an overhead 230-kV transmission line to Amazon’s Blackwell Road site would have the effect of industrializing any corridor it runs through. And from our initial look, all possible routes to the proposed Amazon site would have a detrimental effect on the gateway(s) into the Town of Warrenton, on historic and cultural resources along the route, and on residential neighborhoods.
Dominion’s community input process will include stakeholder meetings through August. Currently, community open house events are scheduled for June 22, 4 – 7 p.m. at Kettle Run High School and June 23, 4 – 7 p.m. at the Fauquier County Fairgrounds. Dominion plans to file an application with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) by fall 2022.
Stepping back, we have a number of questions and concerns we hope will be addressed relatively soon:
- The data center requires Town of Warrenton approval. What happens if the Town denies Amazon’s special use permit? Or, if the Town were to approve a smaller data center project, how would that impact Dominion’s proposal?
- Town zoning requires that data center buildings, mechanical equipment and the substation be screened from roadways. Amazon’s application does not include an analysis of its visual impact. When will Amazon be evaluating this?
- Data centers can use a lot of water. However, Amazon’s application does not include any details about its planned usage of public water supplies. When will Amazon provide information about this?
- This would be a multi-million dollar project, and our understanding from Dominion is that the entire project would be paid for by Dominion customers. Can Amazon be required to underwrite any portion of the project?
- Could locating the data center in other industrially-zoned sites, closer to existing infrastructure, provide a less intrusive, and less costly, option? Remington Technology Park, for example, is a 234-acre, shovel-ready site located right next to an existing substation and already owned by a data center development company, Point One.
- Even if stakeholders make it clear that they prefer underground lines, how likely is it that the SCC, which has the final permitting authority, would truly consider underground routes given that cost is typically one of the primary considerations in routing decisions?
This is not the first time we have seen Dominion build a new transmission line at the behest of Amazon, nor will it likely be the last. In 2018, after four years of controversy and intervention from the Virginia General Assembly, Dominion reached a settlement with Haymarket community members and committed to burying three miles of a transmission line to serve an Amazon Data Services project there. (Such intervention by the General Assembly, brought on by community pressure, may be required again to ensure the undergrounding of transmission lines to the proposed data center in Warrenton.) And later this year, we also expect to see a transmission line proposal in rural Culpeper to serve the data center recently approved for Amazon Data Services subsidiary, Marvell Development.
We believe that Amazon, a company with a current market value of over $1.5 trillion and net income in 2021 of over $33 billion, not Dominion ratepayers, should bear the costs of building this transmission line. Furthermore, rather than accept that this Amazon project at the Blackwell site is a done deal, we hope community members will urge the Warrenton Town Council to consider the broader impacts of approving a data center at this location and turn down Amazon’s proposal. And if the Town decides to approve it, we hope that approval will be conditioned upon the associated transmission line being put underground.
This story appeared in The Piedmont Environmental Council’s member newsletter, The Piedmont View. If you’d like to become a PEC member or renew your membership, please visit pecva.org/join.