Questions Swirl Around Data Centers – How Many, Where and at What Cost?

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aerial view of a few huge data center buildings between a set of apartments and public trail
Data centers next to the W&OD Trail in Loudoun County. Photo by Hugh Kenny/PEC.

Dear Supporter,

With Earth Day just around the corner, I find myself thinking about the need for greater awareness and action on the serious environmental challenges facing our planet. And locally, that brings me back to the subject of data centers. These huge industrial facilities are quickly and dramatically re-shaping the energy demand equation in Virginia, and, in the process, have quietly put in place thousands of commercial-sized, highly polluting, diesel generators for backup power, which are likely to be used more and more frequently.

First, a bit of good news: the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has decided to withdraw its proposed variance that would have allowed data centers to skirt Virginia’s air pollution control regulations limiting the use of emergency diesel generators. 

This is the right move, but based on the wording of DEQ’s statement, I’m very concerned it was made for the wrong reason. The decision came at the request of the data center industry, which said the variance was unworkable because of operational challenges. DEQ responded by withdrawing the proposed variance because  “these issues are now being addressed between the data centers, the utilities, and the regional transmission organization.” But what is alarming is that neither the industry letter nor DEQ’s notice acknowledge widespread public concern about the air pollution potential of the more than 4,000 diesel generators in Loudoun County that the variance would have applied to. 

In fact, DEQ’s notice says that if needed in the future, “DEQ stands ready to assist in ensuring that Virginians have a reliable, affordable, clean, and growing supply of energy.” That makes us very concerned about who is ensuring we have clean air to breathe and that these big industrial facilities are not polluting our environment… 

Although this variance proposal has been pulled, the underlying issue remains: Is this continued boom in data center development sustainable? And if left unchecked, what does it mean for our energy system, air quality, water resources, and communities? 

aerial view of electrical substation near a couple of huge data center buildings
An electric substation near a data center in Ashburn, VA. Photo by Hugh Kenny/PEC

Did you know that a single data center building typically uses around 30+ MW of power, the equivalent of 7,500 homes at peak use (during the heat of summer or coldest days of winter)! The current data center load in Dominion Energy’s territory in Virginia makes up 21% of their electric sales and is the primary driver of growth in demand. Three massive data center campuses are currently being considered in the Commonwealth: Prince William (27 million sq. ft. or about 135 data center buildings), Surry (30 data center buildings), and Orange counties (5 million sq. ft. or about 25 data center buildings). Those three projects alone could use 5.7 gigawatts of energy — equivalent to 1.4 million homes at peak power usage and is more than all the homes in Northern Virginia

An estimated 15 million square feet of by-right data center development are available in Prince William and Loudoun counties, and there are many more rezoning proposals for smaller campuses and single data center buildings in Loudoun and Prince William, nearby Fauquier, Culpeper, and Stafford, and elsewhere throughout the state.

PEC has been leading the effort to learn more about the exponential future growth of data centers and the dramatic energy demand and water supply impacts. During the past session of the General Assembly we worked with partners to support legislation introduced by Sen. Chap Peterson and Del. Danica Roem to authorize a study of the economic, energy, environmental and land use impacts of data centers (SJ240/HJ522). Unfortunately, those bills were killed in subcommittee. Worse yet, other legislation was passed to continue, and even increase, subsidies for data center development in Virginia (HB2479/SB1522). The good news is that we’ve helped bring more awareness to these issues and now you can do something to change the trajectory we’re on.

As election season gets underway, we urge you to highlight this important issue with your elected officials both at the local and state level. Ask them to dig into these tough questions about how long we can continue to sustain such explosive data center expansion, the hidden costs of additional infrastructure and energy supply, and the sizable effects on local land use.

And this Saturday, on Earth Day, I hope you’re able to get outside and do something that connects you with nature, as a reminder of what we are all fighting for! PEC is excited to host a volunteer tree planting in Rappahannock and sponsor partner events across the region in celebration of Earth Day. Check out to learn more.


Julie Bolthouse
Director of Land Use
The Piedmont Environmental Council

Image of Julie Bolthouse.