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Data center boom prompts Fairfax County to take new look at rules, environmental impacts

Fiber optic cables (via Kirill Sh on Unsplash)

As Northern Virginia continues to cement its position as a global base for data centers, Fairfax County leaders say the time has come to reevaluate the impact of the facilities and, potentially, set some boundaries for the future.

At its meeting this morning (Tuesday), the Board of Supervisors directed county staff to research environmental issues linked to data centers and what’s being done to address them. Staff will also develop guidelines for site locations and the process for approving them.

The unanimously approved motion introduced by Board Chairman Jeff McKay advised staff to report back by the end of this year, but with more centers in the works, some supervisors suggested an accelerated timeline is needed.

“The technology’s changing, the practices are changing, so there may be some things that we need to do even sooner than the end of the year,” Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn said. “I would just encourage us to be flexible and staff to bring things forward when ready.”

Though Silicon Valley remains synonymous with the tech industry, the internet lives in Virginia, which hosts about 35% of the world’s data centers — including 45 million square feet just in Northern Virginia, according to a recent report by real estate developer JLL. As much as 70% of all online traffic passes through Loudoun County, giving it the nickname “Data Center Alley.”

Fairfax County currently has 11 data centers with five more “in the pipeline,” according to McKay. Alcorn said four of the upcoming sites are in his district, which includes the CoreSite campus in Reston and offices for Amazon Web Services (AWS) in Herndon.

With AWS pledging to invest $35 billion for new data center campuses in Virginia, the facilities could “be beneficial from a tax-base perspective and perhaps even a building repurposing perspective,” McKay said in his board matter, which was also sponsored by Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck and Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith.

“The region continues to receive requests for more data centers due to our unique location related to the internet’s fiber infrastructure,” McKay said.

However, as the industry’s footprint has grown, so have concerns about the consequences for the environment, local neighborhoods and the power grid.

Citing their impacts on air and water quality as well as electricty usage and greenhouse gas emissions, the county’s Environmental Quality Advisory Council (EQAC) urged the board to develop a plan requiring data centers to use renewable energy “to the extent feasible” and report all emissions and pollutants.

“Actions to mitigate threats to community health and minimize the need for future cleanup of water by County wastewater treatment facilities and Fairfax Water should be undertaken,” EQAC Chair Larry Zaragoza said in the March 13 memo. “Moreover, these steps are important to provide the data centers with clear expectations to reduce environmental impacts.”

The proposed data center plan will build off of updates in the county’s recently voided zoning ordinance, which was scheduled for a public hearing and potential re-adoption today.

Contrary to some criticism, the zoning ordinance modification (zMOD) created more restrictions on data centers compared to the existing code from 1978, McKay said. In addition to banning the facilities from residential districts, the new code added size limits and requirements for cooling, ventilating, and other equipment enclosures.

“While we are open to data centers in Fairfax County, they only work if they’re in the proper location and have the proper environmental mitigations,” he said.

The Board of Supervisors voiced opposition last year to an ultimately approved plan to develop a “digital gateway” in Prince William County that could affect the Occoquan watershed, and Bren Mar residents successfully rallied against a proposal that could’ve opened the door for a data center.

Earlier this year, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) proposed waiving air quality requirements for data centers in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties so they could use generators, fearing they would otherwise overburden the region’s power supply. The proposal was later narrowed to just Loudoun before being withdrawn altogether after criticism from residents and environmental advocates.

The power demand for run data centers is expected to grow going forward, according to Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, who recounted a recent meeting with the president of the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC).

“Right now, data centers are 20% of their power base. In 10 to 15 years, they’re going to be 90% of their power base but less than 5% of their customers,” Herrity said. “At some point in time, we as the elected body here…need to take a look at are we going to have sufficient power, where’s it going to come from, what’s the grid going to look like.”

Franconia District Supervisor Rodney Lusk noted that data center technology is still evolving, so they could take up less space in the future.

While not dismissing the environmental issues associated with data centers, Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw said they’re still more efficient than the on-site computer servers that dominated before cloud computing made remote storage possible.

“If you just measure the emissions that that building creates — and we should hold them to high standards — you’re missing the alternative, which is most often, much less efficient.” he said. “Unless we all stop using our phones and our devices, then we won’t need them, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Photo via Kirill Sh on Unsplash