What It Takes to Power the Cloud

power_lineby James A. Bacon

If it’s not one thing, it’s another. The “rural crescent” in the western reaches of Prince William County has fended off development threats from Disney’s America to four-lane highways. The latest hazard to rural tranquility: a proposed Amazon Web Services (AWS) data center and an electric transmission line to deliver electric power to it.

Emulating the success of its neighbor Loudoun County in encouraging data-center development, Prince William economic development officials have sought to recruit lucrative data centers in the county. Data centers generate tremendous local taxes — roughly $1 million annually per data center in Loudoun — while making minimal demands on local government services.

However, data centers do require electricity — lots of it. Someone has to generate that electricity, which can be an issue because no one wants power plants nearby, and someone has to deliver the electricity, which also is an issue because no one likes looking at power lines. In the case of western Prince William, serving a new AWS facility with electricity would require Dominion to build a six-mile, 230,000-volt transmission line from Gainesville to Haymarket, according to the Washington Post. And many locals don’t want a power line any more than they wanted a Disney theme park or an outer beltway.

Prince William Supervisor Peter K. Candland  is skeptical that a new power line is needed to serve the community, where growth is largely discouraged. “In the last four years, we’ve only approved about 400 new homes and one senior living community,” he told the Post. “I don’t see any other developments on the horizon,” he added. “We’re in a holding pattern.”

Haymarket Mayor David Leake says the power line is “really for one customer, for one need” — Amazon.

Dominion, for its part, says, “The determination has been made that the need is there.”

AWS operates one data center on John Marshall Highway, and county economic developers have held discussions with a local property owner to accommodate another one, including a Dominion sub-station to serve it. Given local resistance, however, the property owner told the Post that it would not seek the zoning necessary to build one.

Bacon’s bottom line: This controversy is instructive in so many ways. First, it shows that localities seeking to bolster their tax base with data centers need to plan for them. Loudoun County is ahead of the game, having developed a special zoning category for data centers and planned for them in other ways. Judging from the Post article, Prince William seems to be winging it.

Second, the hoo-ha in Prince William highlights a potential obstacle to achieving the kind of energy conservation called for by environmentalists to meet the goals of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. One of the biggest potential sources of energy efficiency is migrating business data and computing from energy-inefficient in-house servers to state-of-the-art data centers maintained by cloud providers like AWS, Google, IBM, Microsoft and others. Data centers can reduce the energy cost of storing and processing data by 80%. They reside in inoffensive buildings that generate little traffic and impose few costs on local government, but they require electric power. Supplying that power sometimes requires building new sub-stations and transmission lines. If the United States, as a society, is serious about achieving gains in energy efficiency, it needs to figure out how to build the sub-stations and power lines needed to power the cloud.

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18 responses to “What It Takes to Power the Cloud

  1. Hmm… are there any parallels here between powerlines in Prince William or powerlines across the James or for that matter those bird “slaughtering” wind turbines?

    Of course if Amazon were able to build a solar farm and could sell back excess power to Dominion – perhaps that big powerline would not be as needed.

    For the last two months – I’ve watched transplants from Northern Virginia fight a pitched battle against Verizon – over a two-hundred foot tall cell tower in a heavily wooded area where it’s barely seen and yet these folks came one after another to the podium to declare that they did indeed want better cell service -but they wanted the tower sited – further away – in this case on a Battlefield that their houses back up to.

    So these folks crapped up the Battlefield and now they want to crap it up further so they can have their scenic homesites.

    You might detect an attitude in my words…. this is not the first cell tower “issue” but it’s a familiar pattern. The folks that have lived here for a while – don’t mind the roads, the powerlines and the cell towers. The people that move here – have nothing but complaints about their precious “quality of life”.

    I think living in NoVa does bad things to people .. then they move away – and they bring those same bad things to wherever they decide to move to.

    Some folks sorta say that the pipeline opponents are rural obstructionists – they pale in comparison to NoVA folk – IMHO of course.

    • Larry – you’re as crazy as a jay bird as usual. There are power lines all over Northern Virginia. Two different natural gas pipelines cross through my neighborhood. I could hit a golf ball to the nearest cell tower down the street. I am happy to hear that we are exporting our psychos to your neck of the woods. However, I’ll wager that they moved to NoVa from somewhere else before moving to your area. We’ve done our part in babysitting these Northeastern liberal whiners. Time for you guys to do your share.

  2. Larry, the solar panel field needed to support a data center would be about the size of Dulles International Airport. And then sometimes it wouldn’t work. Get serious.

    So you’ve got nice little NIMBY dustups in Western Va (two gas pipelines), and NoVA and the Peninsula (two large transmission lines.) Yep, we want our power and our jobs and our conveniences, as long as it doesn’t inconvenience us. Fairies are supposed to supply all the electricity and fuel.

    Maybe ranking VA #12 was being generous because a frightening number of Virginians just don’t get it.

  3. Well the one in Accomack is 1000 acres and Dulles is 12,000 acres.

    but yes.. even at 1000 acres.. the cost of acquisition would be right hefty…

    then again – how many acres for a 6 mile powerline?

    see how this thing twists and turns… 😉

    • From my cell phone so rough math.

      An acre is about 42,000 sq ft. A mile is about 5,000 feet. A power line needs about 20 feet cleared on both sides for 40 ft. 40 X 5,000 = 200,000. 200,000 is about 5 acres.

      So, a 6 mile power line through a 40 foot wide swath uses 30 acres of land or 3% of what the solar farm would take.

      • Don – the right of way of one of those critters near me is about 200 feet.

        but yes.. I got about 120 acres… but it’s different than buying one parcel of a lot of acres… A 6 mile powerline is going to involve a bunch of owners.. .each one who is selling much smaller plots.

        Also – if you look at ALL the costs of putting in a powerline – that’s a lot of moola…. and I assume Amazon is going to foot the bill for -up front.

        okay so my second idea. How come Amazon can’t move 6 miles closer!


        • I would guess that Dominion will build the powerline based on an “iron-clad” contract for Dominion to use the electricity for some years to come.

          Moving AWS closer to the power seems like a good idea. However, I know the guys at AWS and they are bright men and women. I have to assume there is some reason why that can’t happen.

          Would it be a big deal if Dominion buried the line?

  4. Steve – do you know if Dominion pays taxes on pipeline/powerline rights of ways?

  5. Yes, all public service companies pay property taxes on their tangible assets and land. Because of the temptation localities would have to stick it to them, the assessed values are determined by the State Corporation Commission — but then they pay the local tax rate on that valuation. The power companies, phone companies, railroads — all are major taxpayers.

    As with all businesses, of course, the Tax Bill gets passed on to the customer. Then there are consumption taxes imposed on the bills by the localities. Businesses don’t pay taxes. Only people can pay taxes. (That will start a new argument…)

  6. re: ” Only people can pay taxes. (That will start a new argument…)”

    not with me.. I totally know it’s true. taxes are just an additional expense that gets incorporated into the sales price.

  7. Jim – this is another excellent article. It point up important issues that need rational and sensible solutions as you and Steve Haner point out.

    Wealth creating high intensity development thoughtfully done is a very good thing. It brings great benefit to our society generally. It lifts everyone’s boat, spreads monetary and cultural wealth of all sorts throughout our region while its spins off a myriad of collateral public services and facilities, and spreads and grows intellectual capital, opening up vast opportunities in the fantastical world of new technologies we now can build and live in and benefit from and enjoy. Done right, imaginatively, the sky is our limit.

    Doing this, we all need to be able to differentiate intelligently and rationally between what is good development and what is the bad. We need to think and creatively, with imagination and flexibility. We need to develop the good sense and civic virtue so as to actively promote the good, not oppose it, while we oppose the bad, the cheap and short sighted that will compromise our future.

    Examples past and present abound.

    How the dream of a Rosslyn/Ballston was built for the future we now enjoy.
    How we failed to do the same when we built Tysons Corner, what we should have opposed but did not do at the time (myself included). How now local citizens are now working hard to fix in Tyson’s what we long ago never should have built at Tysons.

    How others have and are opposing Air Cargo airports and distribution centers and the massive roads they require through historic parks and countryside, where other sorts of positive development, including high tech urban and suburban development, likely deserve a strong and vibrant roll, indeed likely will play a critical and essential part in building that future.

    You say “data centers do require electricity — lots of it.”

    Does not our future, and all its potential, require lots of electricity as far as our eyes can see? If so, should not that lots of electricity be produced in whatever quantities are demanded so long as those quantities are consumed in the most efficient, productive, and practical cost effective manner we can devise, so as to better guarantee to us the brightest future we can attain?

    Are these points and questions I raise platitudes? Or are they essential attitudes that give us a better chance to best guide decisions in the future?

    This article and others that you are writing highlight important issues. So do many of the comments they have engendered.

    • “How the dream of a Rosslyn/Ballston was built for the future we now enjoy.”

      Reed – you are right … today. However, that corridor was a blighted disaster zone as recently as the early to mid 1980s. It was carefully redeveloped and became the fine, high density, mixed use place it is today.

      As far as I can tell, the only livable place in Northern Virginia that was built right from the start is Reston.

      We’ll see how the Tyson’s redevelopment goes. One thing for sure – adding lots of capacity on the heels of sequestration and a defense spending cut back will make Tyson’s success a challenge. Had the reinvention of Tysons been done in 2000 instead of 2015 I think it would have been a success.

      You are right in writing that the world needs more and more electricity. I also think the world needs to emit less carbon (and all the other nasty stuff that comes from burning fossil fuel). So, why not get on with the clean energy transformation?

      • As I recall, you grew up (at least in part) in Arlington. So did I. My memory of life in Arlington goes back to the very late 1640s and all of the decades that followed though the mid-1990.

        By and large Arlington’s downtown worked well until its decline began in the mid 1960’s. In part this decline was caused by the opening of the 495 beltway. It replaced Glebe Road as Northern Virginia’s Beltway. Thus it drained much of the business life out of Arlington’s downtown that then migrated west to the greener pastures of Fairfax County.

        Arlington’s decline was also acerbated by its ill advised planning and execution of its first attempt to revive Rosslyn after the Federal Government began moving Federal offices out of DC in the 1960s.

        Counter trends arose as traffic failures around the 495 Beltway became obvious to most everyone by the very early 1980s. These failures were ignited by the poor planning and execution of Tysons Corner. Fairfax put too much office and regional shopping mall uses, and too little high rise residential uses, into Tysons Cornerd. This dumped a traffic monster onto a hopeless inadequate road net constrained by geography and politics.

        This in turn sparked the commercial rebirth of the Balston-Rossyln Corridor in the mid-1980s. I saw this coming in 1980s. Thus I built with partners one of the 1st major redevelopment projects in Balston during that early period. We succeeded in substantial part due to the growing and increasingly dysfunction of Fairfax in and around Tysons Corner and all the dysfunction it spread out among its neighbors.

        Reston of course was built from the ground up out of Sunset Hills farm. It too, unfortunately, was built wrong from the start. That is why Reston failed financially almost from the start. And it is why Reston went through a series of owners and financial failures for nearly two decades.

        I was also on the scene of these Reston difficulties from 1970 on. Indeed my law firm partners had represented of land owners of Sunset Hills in their earlier sale of Sunset Hills to Simon. From that point on we were also involved in the subsequent unwinding and rewinding of various iterations of Reston, and collateral transactions that under-pinned Reston financially as well as on the land sales and development side, along with others.

        These failures are not intended to deprecate Simon. He was a great visionary who simply went too far too fast ahead of this time and who was unable to adjust of market realities, hence forced to liquidate to deeper pockets who thereafter struggled for many years to bring Reston in line with market tastes and realities.

        Many of these matter are discussed at length within the archives on this website. I’ll retrieve some of those articles and post theirf addresses here.

      • ” So, why not get on with the clean energy transformation?”

        Don –

        I am all for clean energy too.

        My issue is only about the question of how to get there, developing solutions, in the best practical way with the best chance of success at workable costs. To my mind this should include at the moment finding the best interim bridges to a clean energy future while going after finding the ultimate solution in the most rational and cost effective way, with the least political interference.

        Unfortunately, I suspect we are not doing that now, thus wasting money that could be better targeted on real solutions and bridges to get there.

        Despite all my past skepticism, I am more encouraged about closing in on solutions than I have been in the past.

  8. The entire point of “the cloud” is – greater and greater efficiency – and conservation of resources – time, fuel and electricity.

    The trends are undeniable. No one is betting against it with their own money excepts perhaps Dominion.

    and it really is a Godsend to mankind because what it means is less pollution and less depletion of non-renewable resources – which we will continue to need even in a world with more wind and solar.

    Fossil fuels – will continue to be the backup fuel of choice.

    but in our homes – and in our grids – we are going to have smarter and smarter controls – appliances, water heaters, insulation, solar integration at the residential level if not at the grid level.

    these things ARE not only going to happen – they are happening right now and not only will they conserve resources and reduce pollution – they will provide good 21st century global jobs –

    solar is never going to be a primary source of baseload power but it’s going to be more and more a power of choice in places where there are choices.

    Let me give some examples. The GPS satellites that power the navigation world – they not only run off of solar but do we even know on a cost per user basis what the cost is? It’s like “free” to most of us. We take it for granted.

    GPS is universally changing the world – changing the way we accomplish tasks and in turn use fuel to do so.

    Not only do NOAA weather satellites also run off of solar but so do thousands of river gauges that we use to monitor floods.

    Even the lowly 25mph school sign is now running off of solar.

    some day – perhaps much, much sooner than we think – our homes will run like our cars which use batteries to not only start but power all the cars systems.

    a home battery – perhaps the size of a small car – will become standard equipment… and will scavenge every watt of excess solar to save it for later and even if Dominion/others continue to be monetarily hostile to being relegated to failsafe backup power – it won’t change the momentum… people will just work harder and harder to pay Dominion less and less.

    and really that’s a GOOD THING – because we all know that frack gas is finite and we really want to make it last as long as we can.

  9. this is an example of what is happening to end-useage of electricity that some might think is optimized and no further progress possible:

    ” Orange County schools will receive a second round of energy-efficiency upgrades this year.

    The School Board voted Monday to authorize ABM to proceed with phase 2 of the performance contract. The upgrades to nine buildings will cost some $1.25 million, but will be self-funded through a guaranteed and bonded 15-year payback on energy-cost savings at those facilities.”


    let me repeat this part: “.. will be self-funded through a guaranteed and bonded 15-year payback on energy-cost savings”

    Anyway you cut it – that’s 1.25 million LESS in purchased electricity.

    this is going on with virtually every commercial scale building from schools to WalMarts to distribution centers to you name it – any large structure .

    • Building automation is a multibillion industry and growing. There are tremendous energy savings to be reaped from commercial buildings. My wife’s employer, Tridium, provides software to that sector, and the company is going gangbusters.

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