Why are ratepayers footing the bill for Virginia’s data center buildout?

By Ivy Main

Virginia’s embrace of the data center industry produced new fallout this spring when Dominion Energy Virginia released its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). With data center growth the “key driver,” Dominion projects a massive increase in the demand for electricity. As a result, the utility claims the state-mandated transition to clean energy is now impossible to achieve. 

Jettisoning its commitment to the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), Dominion proposes to keep running uneconomic coal and biomass plants that were previously slated for closure, build a new fossil gas plant and pay penalties instead of meeting state renewable energy targets, all of which mean higher costs for customers.

As I said at the time, this IRP is primarily a political document aimed at currying favor with a gas-loving governor. It is not a serious plan. For example, a Sierra Club filing with the State Corporation Commission describes how Dominion put artificial constraints into its computer modeling (including limits on new solar) to ensure the plan came out fossil-friendly. Moreover, Dominion’s demand projections are inflated, according to the clean energy industry group Advanced Energy United.But for the sake of discussion, let’s take the IRP at face value. And in that case, I have some questions. How did Dominion let itself get blindsided by the data center growth spurt? Why are the rest of us expected to pay for infrastructure that’s only needed for data centers? Does the Governor understand that his deal to bring another $35 billion worth of new Amazon data centers to Virginia  is driving up energy rates for everyone else? 

Oh, and while I’m at it, are tech company commitments to sourcing renewable energy just a pack of lies?

Virginia’s data center problem is well known. Northern Virginia has the largest concentration of data centers in the world, by far. Data centers are Dominion’s single largest category of commercial power users, already consuming more than 21% of total electricity supply and slated to hit 50% by 2038. In addition to the new generation that will be required, data centers need grid upgrades including new transmission lines, transformers and breakers, with the costs spread to all ratepayers. 

Residents are not happy. Controversy around data centers’ diesel generators, their water use, noise and visual impacts have spread outward from Loudoun County into Prince William, Fauquier, and even other parts of Virginia as massive new developments are proposed. 

Data center developers don’t build without assurance they will have access to the huge amount of electricity they need for their operations, so they have to start discussions with their utility early. Yet in July of 2022, Dominion stunned the data center industry by warning it would not be able to meet new demand in Loudoun County until 2025 or 2026. The utility said, however, that the problem was not generating capacity, but transmission. 
So, what gives?

Not that it would be better if Dominion anticipated the oncoming tsunami but kept it secret until this spring. You have to wonder whether the General Assembly would have approved hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and tax subsidies for new Amazon data centers in February if legislators understood the effect would be to upend the VCEA and drive up energy costs for residents. 

Some Republicans are no doubt pleased that Dominion’s IRP undermines the VCEA, but they shouldn’t be. Dominion proposes keeping coal plants open not for economic reasons, but in spite of them. These plants were slated for closure in previous IRPs because they were costing ratepayers too much money. Now Dominion says it needs more generating capacity and can’t (or rather, won’t) build enough low-cost solar to keep up with new data 
center demand.

Dominion also proposes to build a new methane gas combustion “peaker” plant that wasn’t in its last IRP, and again the company points to data center growth as the 
reason. Peaker plants are an expensive way to generate power; on average, the cost of energy from gas combustion is about double that of a solar/storage combination, or even triple once you factor in federal clean 
energy incentives.

Keeping the fossil fuel party going instead of embracing more solar isn’t the only way this IRP drives rates higher for customers. Limiting its solar investments means Dominion expects to miss the VCEA’s renewable energy percentage targets by a mile. The shortfall would subject Dominion to significant penalties. The kicker is, Dominion can pass the cost of those penalties  on to ratepayers, too. 

Regardless of your political persuasion, then, this IRP is bad news for 
Virginia consumers. 

It’s also concerning that the driver of all these higher costs and carbon emissions is the high-tech industry that is so eager to be seen as a leader in sustainability. If these tech companies were meeting their power needs with renewable energy, Dominion wouldn’t be able to claim a “need” to keep its old coal plants 
belching away.  

Amazon, the number one beneficiary of state data center largesse, says it is the leading corporate purchaser of renewable energy globally. Its website claims the company is “on a path to powering our operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025.” A map shows it has developed around 16 solar projects in Virginia, adding up to over 1,100 megawatts. That’s great, but the company’s Virginia data centers are such energy hogs that they would need many times as much solar, plus a huge amount of battery storage to meet their 24/7 demand. And of course, Amazon’s demand will skyrocket with that next $35 billion in new 
data centers.

That same map, by the way, shows that Amazon has on-site solar at warehouses and Whole Foods stores all over the Northeast, but none in Virginia. Northeastern states have higher commercial power rates than Virginia does, so on-site solar means bigger bill savings in those states. One cannot help but suspect that Amazon’s commitment to 
renewable energy is really just a commitment to 
cheap energy.  

The Data Center Coalition’s filing in the IRP case does nothing to reassure us otherwise. Instead of chiding Dominion for reneging on its clean energy commitments, the Coalition’s Josh Levi essentially argues data centers are so important it 
doesn’t matter. 

I have no beef with data centers as a general proposition. They are an integral component of today’s economy, and the developments that now drive their explosive growth — machine learning and artificial intelligence — will also help us achieve a zero-carbon future.  

I just think data centers should try a little harder to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.  

This commentary originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury. Ivy Main is a lawyer and a longtime volunteer with the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. A former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee, she is currently the Sierra Club’s renewable energy chairperson. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.