The news of Amazon’s new Headquarters was almost unavoidable to those of us here in the Commonwealth. Some are welcoming their plans for Northern Virginia, while others are expressing significant concerns. Some are rejoicing over the potential for new jobs, and others are lamenting about traffic and infrastructure pressures. No one knows for sure the impact that Amazon will have on Virginia, but one this is certain: it will consume a lot of energy.
In addition to the needs of its new offices, there are currently many Amazon data centers sited throughout Virginia, including Ashburn, Sterling, Haymarket, Manassas, Chantilly. Data centers are notorious for being incredibly energy hungry. Data centers across the US use more than 90 billion kW/h of electricity per year. This is the equivalent of 34 fully operational coal-fired power plants committing their full capacity.
This massive demand will either further entrench Virginia in its reliance on traditional fuel sources or be a catalyst for a renewable energy future. This will depend largely on Amazon’s priorities. The internet giant has heavily publicized its goal of 100% renewable energy to power its data centers. However, according to a report publicized by Greenpeace, the Virginia data centers are currently being powered by only 12% renewable energy, compared to its country average of 50%.
Numerous accusations have been made based on comments from high-profile Amazon employees that the company does not intend to keep its promise of 100% renewables. To those who would argue that 100% renewable, especially for data centers, is unattainable, take Google as an example. Google boasts 100% renewable energy for both its offices and data centers as of 2017. Google has achieved this through heavy investment in Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), which commits it to purchase the energy produced by the project while simultaneously investing money renewable projects. It has the added benefit of keeping the company’s rate consistent throughout the term of the contract. Google is now the biggest corporate consumer of renewable energy in the world.
Whether these accusations of Amazon’s waning interest in renewables have any merit remains to be seen. But, as Amazon continues to make itself at home in our state, we must be vigilant as to its intentions and advocate for responsible energy usage and investments. We should encourage Amazon to align its priorities with the needs of a secure, diverse energy future.