As Virginians Head to the Polls, Data Centers Stay Top of Mind

All of Virginia’s statewide legislative seats are up for grabs in November elections

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Virginians head to the polls Nov. 7 to decide which party rules the state legislature, along with a heap of local seats. While the outcomes of those races will certainly have consequential statewide implications, they’re also likely to affect a particularly contentious issue for Virginians: data center development. 

Close to 300 data centers are spread across Virginia, principally in the northern counties of Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax, due to robust fiber optic infrastructure, proximity to D.C. and tax incentives, making it the largest concentration of such facilities on Earth. Dominion Energy, the state’s largest power provider, has claimed that an estimated 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic flows through Virginia data centers. 

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Researchers say Virginia is also home to more than 35 percent of the world’s hyperscale data centers, which house critical computation and network infrastructure — more than in the whole of Europe. 

There’s little wonder why the state has embraced the facilities. Data centers in Loudoun County alone were projected to generate over $575 million in tax revenue this fiscal year, according to the county’s 2023 budget. Revenue in Prince William County was projected to total $100 million in the same period.

“That money funds a lot of things: schools, law enforcement, roads, bridges … that’s what’s at stake here,” said Robert Sweeney, president and CEO of the Prince William Chamber of Commerce.

Yet the fervor around data center profitability is tempered by concerns from local communities and environmental groups over their potential impacts, from excessive power and water usage to their noise and sheer scale. 

Data centers are some of the most energy-intensive building types, using 10 to 50 times the energy per square foot of a typical commercial office space, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Dominion has projected that data centers will use 10 gigawatts of power in the commonwealth by 2035, a dramatic increase from the 2.67 gigawatts that facilities there used last year, according to Data Center Frontier, which cites Dominion’s statistics. One gigawatt of energy is enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes.

To supply that amount of energy, Dominion plans to upgrade its power network with multiple new 500-kilovolt transmission lines and substations, which has also sparked concern from community groups, per Data Center Frontier.

A single, large data center can meanwhile use up to 5 million gallons of water per day to cool its servers — enough for a town of 50,000 people, according to The Washington Post.

“Water usage, energy and impact to local communities haven’t really been considered, at least not at scale. The impacts are only partially understood,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “We need to take a minute to take a hard look at all of these factors. That’s a message that a lot of constituents are conveying to politicians at the state and local level.”

Attempts to holistically study the impacts of data centers have thus far failed in the state’s General Assembly. A resolution to do just that, Senate Joint Resolution 240, was introduced by Democratic Sen. John Chapman Chap” Petersen of Fairfax, but was killed in a House Rules subcommittee earlier this year. 

Sen. Petersen had previously introduced a number of other bills related to data center development, such as SB 1078, which would’ve barred local governments from approving data center construction within one mile of a national or state park. 

That bill was a thinly veiled shot at the Digital Gateway project, a controversial initiative to build over 20 million square feet of data centers across more than 2,100 acres of land in western Prince William County. Parts of the planned project are adjacent to both Conway Robinson State Forest and Manassas National Battlefield Park. 

Digital Gateway has been the subject of fierce debate among its proponents and critics. The Prince William Board of County Supervisors approved Digital Gateway’s land use plan last November after a 14-hour public meeting that lasted until the following morning. The Democrat-controlled board ultimately voted 5-2 in favor of the plan, with the vote falling on party lines after Republican Peter Candland recused himself. Candland later resigned, following revelations that he and his wife had agreed to sell their land to make way for the massive development. 

The project has two more hurdles to clear this year. It seeks rezoning approval from the county’s Planning Commission on Nov. 8, before heading back to the Board of Supervisors for a final vote in December. 

Yet the fates of those votes are far from certain. Democratic County Supervisor Chair At-Large Ann Wheeler, who voted in favor of the project last November, lost her primary bid to first-time candidate Deshundra Jefferson back in June, due in part to Wheeler’s support of data centers, per The Post. Jefferson has voiced skepticism of Digital Gateway, and of data center development in general, as has her Republican opponent, Jeanine Lawson. The winner of that race will be decided Nov. 7, though Wheeler will remain in office until the new year.

Sen. Petersen also lost his primary bid in June to Saddam Salim, a first-generation immigrant and political activist. 

No matter the results of the upcoming elections, the debate around data centers in the commonwealth isn’t going away anytime soon. 

Aside from Digital Gateway, Amazon Web Services and Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced earlier this year plans to invest $35 billion to expand Amazon’s data center footprint in the state by 2040, in a move drawing resistance from critics who say that the tech giant was already fumbling on its green energy commitments. 

Amazon officially opened its second headquarters in Arlington in June, which it said will be one of the most environmentally-friendly developments in the region.

Virginia-based developer Stanley Martin also hopes to build approximately 4.2 million square feet of new data centers in Prince William County, via another controversial project dubbed Devlin Technology Park. Yet back in March, the company deferred a vote on its rezoning requests for the project indefinitely, according to Bristow Beat.

Phil Abraham, legislative counsel for the Virginia Association for Commercial Real Estate (VACRE), said that the upcoming election is important on the state level, as it will determine which party has control of the legislative bodies. Republicans narrowly control the House of Delegates, as well as the governorship, while Democrats narrowly control the state Senate.

The entire state General Assembly, with its 100 House seats and 40 Senate seats, is up for grabs this year.

“There’s going to be a huge turnover of seats and committee leadership in the General Assembly this year because of primary results and retirements,” Abraham said. “But control of both houses is going to be close. I’d be stunned if there was more than a three-vote majority in the House and two in the Senate.”

Yet the fate of future data center development in the state does not necessarily fall on party lines. Although Democrats are generally considered pro-environment, and Republicans are considered pro-business, Abraham and Miller said that support for the facilities in Virginia is often based on locality rather than party affiliation.

Nick Trombola can be reached at NTrombola@commercialobserver.com.