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.