MANASSAS, Va.—In Great Oak, about three miles from the iconic Manassas Railroad Depot, a vast Amazon Web Services data center fills the neighborhood just outside the city limits with a high-pitched whirring noise 24/7.
Fred Kurst and Lori Haskell, neighbors on Winged Elm Circle, could hear it loudly and clearly during a recent stroll. “It’s like being on a tarmac with an airplane engine running constantly,” said Kurst, a salesman and father of two daughters. “Except that the airplane keeps idling and never leaves.”
“And once you hear this sound,” added Haskell, an administrator for the city of Manassas, “you can never unhear it.”
Call it the soundtrack of Prince William County, which sits 36 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. and is poised to overtake neighboring Loudoun County as the world’s data center capital, with 25 million square feet of data centers operational and another 4 million in development.
By one estimate, Prince William has 83 million square feet of space in operation and on the drawing board for these massive, humming, air-conditioned server farms.
Statewide, data centers accounted for 62 percent of all new investment—$6.8 billion—in Virginia in 2021, according to the Northern Virginia Technology Council. And just last month, Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced a deal with Amazon Web Services to invest $35 billion for even more data center development in the state by 2040.
Prince William and Loudoun are among the Northern Virginia counties that have made up a tech hub since the days of the internet’s predecessor, ARPANET. Northern Virginia has more data centers than the next five largest markets in the U.S. combined, the technology council reported in 2022.
Tech companies have historically seen a technical advantage in having data centers in Northern Virginia, America’s most important hub for internet traffic and system infrastructure.
“There’s an advantage in terms of the speed of the internet because of a large new fiber optic cable that lands in Virginia coupled with past investments in fiber optic trunk lines that make available substantial bandwidth, which is important for data centers,” said Bill Shobe, professor of public policy at the University of Virginia. “And once that capacity is already there, it’s easy to add more.”
Nationally, the U.S. was home to over 2,600 data centers last year, a 33 percent share of the world market, according to data compiled by the United States International Trade Commission.
“Between 2018 and 2020, more data were created than in all of human history before 2018,” the commission said, adding that “the data processing and storage market is estimated to grow from $56 billion in 2020 to $90 billion by 2025.”
But while data center growth in Northern Virginia has become a critical engine for economic development, opposition is mounting in Prince William from environmentalists, community groups, neighboring jurisdictions and historians concerned about damage to Manassas National Battleground Park, the site of two major Civil War battles, the First and Second Battles of Bull Run.
In October, a coalition of 30 environmental and conservation groups sent an open letter to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors urging them to drop a proposal to create a Digital Gateway because of its outsized environmental footprint and close proximity to the battlefields in view of “grave threats” to “irreplaceable historic resources.”
Among their chief concerns are the massive amount of stormwater runoff from the millions of square feet of paved over surfaces that would imperil the watershed that provides drinking water for Northern Virginia residents, and the hazardous and noisy construction activities next to residential areas. There are also lingering questions over the impact of energy intensive data centers on the state’s clean energy targets and the true economic benefit for the state.
Back in Great Oak, the bare trees in winter make all four buildings of the Amazon data center, just 700 feet from the nearest homes, clearly visible. “Now we talk mostly about whether we are getting enough sleep at night or the resale value of our homes,” Kurst said. “And how it’s hard to sit outside on your front porch because it’s loud.”
“And the pitch of the noise fluctuates,” said Haskell, adding that the hum from the data center is typically louder on the second floor of her two-story home.
Dale Browne, president of the Great Oak Homeowners’ Association, said he’s been talking to Amazon and Prince William County officials in an attempt to remedy the problem. “We have a neighbor who replaced every window in his house in hopes of getting a resolution but that didn’t help,” Browne said. “The person next to him sold the house and moved. We have homeowners who have foundation cracks, and Amazon owes me an answer to that.”
A spokesman for Amazon said in a statement that the company has typically responded swiftly to complaints about noise. “Amazon Web Service is committed to being a good member of the community, so we design and engineer our data centers to minimize the impact on our neighbors and the environment,” the spokesman said.
“In the very small number of isolated instances where we have received feedback on sound levels from our neighbors, we have taken immediate steps to lower sound levels and engineer solutions to further reduce sound,” he added.
Still, with more data centers under construction adjacent and across from the Amazon’s, totaling around 1.3 million square feet, there is a growing sense of alarm among the community already battling stress and anxiety from interrupted sleep.
County Officials Press Ahead with a Digital Gateway
Some 10 miles north of Great Oak, near the Manassas National Battleground Park, tensions are simmering over the Prince William Digital Gateway, a proposed data zone corridor approved in November by the Prince William County Board of Supervisors to accommodate an additional 27 million square feet of new data center development.
The gateway came in addition to a Data Center Opportunity Zone Overlay District, spread over approximately 9,500 acres of land, which was created by the county in 2016 and hosts its own array of data centers. Still others, like the Amazon facility in Great Oak, lie outside the opportunity overlay, creating a cluttered and confusing data center landscape.
In creating the new digital gateway, the county supervisors voted to change the zoning on 2,139 acres of protected farmland from agricultural to industrial.
According to the county, as of April 2022, Prince William has 33 existing data centers built on approximately 523 acres with another 13 currently under construction. Of the 33 data centers operating, 29 are located within the overlay district and an additional 13 data centers have either been approved or are under consideration outside the district. Prince William Digital Gateway, the largest of these developments, is not counted among these estimates.
The opponents of the gateway proposal said they were appalled that the elected officials steamrolled their concerns over environmental and energy impacts of a massive industrial buildout on protected rural lands, adjacent to the historic Manassas National Battleground Park and the Conway Robinson State Forest.
“They just simply waited for the public comment period to exhaust itself and almost immediately voted to approve the project as though it was a checklist exercise and they already knew what they were going to do,” Bill Wright, a Gainesville resident, said of a marathon public hearing Nov. 1, 2022 that lasted around 10 hours.
Asked for comment, Meika Daus, deputy planning director of Prince William County, responded in an email that the gateway plan “was informed by the environmental analysis that was completed,” setting aside ample land for parks and open space, a county historic site and environmental protection.
The community groups and environmentalists, unmoved by the board’s reasoning to go ahead with the proposal, have since mounted pressure on the county officials by bringing lawsuits and initiating the recall of elected county officials.
Pete Candland (R-Gainesville), the elected supervisor from the affected area who was seen as a vocal critic of the proposal, has since resigned under pressure after it turned out that he and his wife had agreed to sell their land as part of the project.
A citizen’s group, Coalition to Protect Prince William County, separately launched a campaign to recall chair of the board, Democrat Anne Wheeler, alleging that she owned stock in tech and data center companies over and above the permitted limit, which amounted to a conflict of interest.
Separately, another community group, Gainesville Citizens for Smart Growth, hired a legal firm that asked the Prince William County Attorney Michelle R. Robl in June last year to review Wheeler’s financial records.
“The Chair has holdings of between $50,001 and $250,000 in each of Amazon and Blackstone, two companies that stand to reap significant financial gain from approval of the Digital Gateway,” the letter said.
Wheeler did not confirm or deny the allegation. Instead, she forwarded a two-page letter from the Office of the Commonwealth Attorney, which provided a written opinion about the matter based on Wheeler’s declarations under the state and local government conflict of interest act, clearing her participation.
Jeanine Lawson, a Republican and one the two county supervisors who voted against changing the status of the land, said the land is part of the Occoquan watershed, a major source of drinking water for Northern Virginia residents, including those in Fairfax and Prince William Counties.
“Fairfax County Board of County Supervisors unanimously sent a letter to our Prince William County Board raising the red flag about taking this land out of the rural area and industrializing it, and the effects that would have on the watershed that we share,” Lawson said, adding that the board continued to ignore the pleas of environmentalists and water experts.
Describing Wheeler as someone “out of touch with the community’s concerns,” Lawson said the only other residents supporting the idea were the ones who would make millions by selling their land to data corporations.
“The chair has never shown an interest in slowing this down and doing the studies that need to be conducted, like the water study,” she said. “She wants to just keep moving forward like a freight train.”
Wheeler did not respond to the allegation despite multiple attempts.
The county will review three separate rezoning applications in the coming months from two technology companies that plan to develop the digital gateway. “It’ll go to the planning commission and then it will come to the board for our vote and that’s what matters,” Lawson said.
Do the Numbers Add Up?
After Prince William officials declined to answer questions about how many data centers they were planning for, citing non-disclosure agreements, Bill Wright, a retired U.S. Navy captain, teamed up with another community member, Bob Weir, and performed their own analysis.
Now they wonder whether the numbers add up. Similar questions have also been raised about the true economic development value of data centers, and about their impact on the state’s renewable energy targets.
The study that underpins Prince William County’s actions to commit more land to data centers development—the May 2022 Targeted Industry Land Use Analysis by Camoin Associates—estimated that the highest demand for data centers in the area over the next 20 years was 48 million square feet.
But Wright and Weir, sifting through tax records, land use permits, building permits and planning documents, calculated that even before creation of the new digital gateway project, the county had already committed 56 million square-feet of land for data centers development inside and outside of the 2016 Data Center Opportunity Zone Overlay District. The proposed Prince William Digital Gateway will add another 27 million, Wright said, bringing the county’s total to a whopping 83 million square-feet.
“With the addition of Prince William Digital Gateway, the county overshot its own benchmark by 74 percent,” said Wright. “After I put all this information together, I shared it with the county officials and asked if they could validate it. They even refused to do that.”
Daus, the deputy planning director, said that the county publishes a variety of data and maintains databases on pending applications so that the “public may obtain accurate information, do independent analysis, and inform themselves on issues of importance.” But she said her office did not have “an updated compiled list of all data centers approved, pending, under review as of Dec 31, 2022 at this time.”
In terms of tax revenues, Virginia’s data center sales and use-tax exemption—considered to be the Commonwealth’s largest economic development incentive—is estimated to have cost the state $138 million in 2020, and more than $830 million from 2010 to 2020.
According to a 2019 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, “Virginia received back only 72 cents for every dollar of tax incentive, while data centers created few jobs and provided economic benefits primarily to the local governments where they are sited.”
Early last year, the Prince William County’s Planning Office corrected the projected tax revenue impact of the digital gateway corridor from $700 million to $400 million over 20 years.
Lawson said county board chairwoman Wheeler “is trying to pitch the gateway project as if it’s going to bring a windfall of revenues. It will take 20 years to realize the revenues she claims would come with the digital gateway. We can raise those revenues in other ways but Chair Wheeler is not willing to do that.”
Suzanne Clark, managing director of communications at Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP), told Inside Climate News via email that 90 percent of all new investment in Virginia in 2021, totalling $39.9 billion, was generated from new and expanding data centers.
“According to VEDP’s Announcements Database, in 2022 the Computing Infrastructure Providers, Data Processing, Web Hosting, and Related Services industry was the top sector by investment (representing at least $8.1 billion investment) and the fifth-largest sector by employment (representing more than 1,300 jobs), which reinforces its overall positive impact on Virginia’s economy,” Clark added.
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Meanwhile, in October, the Prince William County Sustainability Commission sent a letter to the county supervisors, expressing “strong concern” on the impact of the digital gateway project on the county’s goal of 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, given how much renewable energy would have to be added to meet the data centers’ massive demands for power.
The commission warned that the proposal could derail the interim climate mitigation goal of 50 percent greenhouse gas emission reductions below 2005 levels by 2030, and the loss of positive emissions impact from the removal of rural forested land.
Statewide, data centers could have a similar impact, requiring Virginia to go well beyond its current plans for developing renewable energy if it is to meet its targets and keep up with the power demands of this burgeoning sector.
The growing number of data centers is expected to drive a 38 percent increase in all electricity sales in Virginia between 2020 and 2035, according to a report by the University of Virginia’s Energy Transition Initiative—an increase of around 44,000 gigawatt-hours per year in electricity use. A gigawatt hour is just about the amount of electricity that 1,000 Virginians on average use in a year.
Shobe, the University of Virginia professor and author of the Energy Transition Initiative study, said the data center buildout is potentially so large that it could consume all of the renewable energy the state is currently planning.
He added that because electricity sales are growing so fast, the state’s ability to meet its clean energy standard will be more challenging “because we’ll be needing to add renewables even faster to keep the percentages consistent with the Clean Economy Act.”
Another chief community concern in Prince William County involves the impact of covering more than 2,100 acres of land with impermeable surfaces such as buildings, parking areas, roads and walkways, increasing the polluted run-off and decreasing groundwater recharge.
Daus said that the digital gateway rezoning from agricultural to industrial “includes green infrastructure, water and sewer, sustainability, and noise mitigation policies.”
She said that the plan encourages data center operators to purchase clean energy, use less carbon intensive or carbon neutral energy generation for backup generation systems, and use water efficient systems to minimize impacts to the county’s water resources.
Meanwhile, Virginia regulators are considering allowing almost 300 data centers in Northern Virginia to use generators as a backup power source for a five-month stretch in anticipation of energy transmission problems. Environmentalists said these backup generators burn diesel or natural gas, which pollute the environment and pose risks to human health, and are a sticking point in the struggle against the buildout.
Ripples of Protest in the General Assembly
In January, residents of Gainesville met with state lawmakers, apprising them of their unmet concerns over the digital gateway project and the noisy and sprawling data center buildout next to residential areas and, in some cases, schools.
The concerns over the number of data centers in Northern Virginia and the associated costs have since reverberated in the Virginia General Assembly, where some lawmakers introduced bills to prevent an unchecked proliferation of these server farms across the state.
Del. Danica Roem, a Democrat from Manassas, introduced two bills targeting the Prince William County’s Digital Gateway project, including HB 1986, which would require enhanced stormwater management practices for the data center because of the proximity to the Manassas National Battleground Park and the Conway Robinson State Forest.
Given the gateway’s adjacency to the battlefield and state forest, the other proposed legislation, HB 1974, called for underground electrical transmission lines to be built as a public interest so as not to detract from the public’s battleground park experience.
Roem also introduced House Joint Resolution 522, which would direct the Virginia Department of Energy to study the impacts of data center development on the state’s environment, economy, energy resources and carbon-reduction goals.
“Northern Virginia is already the data center capital of the world, and we need to know what we’re getting ourselves into with an expansion of an already booming industry that consumes a massive amount of water and energy,” Roem said.
In recent days, Roem’s bill calling for enhanced stormwater measures and the joint resolution that would have called for studying the overall impacts of data centers were tabled by House of Delegates committees, whereas HB 1974 was also tabled by the Committee on Commerce and Energy.
In the Senate, Chap Petersen, a Democrat from Fairfax County, introduced SB 1078 proposing siting limitations on data centers within one mile of state and national parks. The bill, which specifically targeted the Prince William Digital Gateway, died last week in a state Senate committee.
Petersen’s other bill, SJ 240, also aimed at the gateway project, was approved by the state Senate Rules Committee. The legislation asked the state’s Department of Energy to study the impacts of data center development on Virginia’s environment, economy, energy resources and ability to meet carbon-reduction goals.
“There are clearly people working behind the scenes to defeat this bill, but I’m not going to be deterred,” Peterson said.
The legislative wrangling coincided with Gov. Youngkin’s announcement last month of the $35 billion investment by Amazon, when he deferred the questions over the siting of new data centers to a later date. The tax incentives, projected to run into the millions, would require legislative approval.
“The influence of big tech money has become intoxicating to our politicians,” said Wright, who hopes the state will align its plans with the environmental and clean energy needs of Virginia.
“If the digital gateway were to be approved, it will forever change the landscape of Prince William County,” Lawson, the county supervisor, said. “I strongly believe that it will have a harmful effect on our watershed and to our community.”
Opposition is mounting from many quarters, she said. “There are state legislators trying to intervene. And this project has so many people from different political stripes working together who probably would have never thought of working together on a political matter,” Lawson said. “It’s actually fascinating that this has become such a unifier.”