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Tech titans' Virginia data centers driving fossil fuel usage, says Greenpeace

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Tech titans' Virginia data centers driving fossil fuel usage, says Greenpeace

A new report from Greenpeace USA accuses operators of a growing cluster of data centers in Northern Virginia of "driving a massive new investment in fossil fuels," in stark contrast with the 100% renewable energy goals of many technology companies that have flocked to the region.

Fueled largely by data center energy demand, "the internet will continue to drive carbon emissions with every click, swipe and share" unless data center operators make greater efforts to fuel their growing footprint in Virginia with renewables, Greenpeace said in the report, released Feb. 13. Loudoun County, Va., which claims "the world's largest concentration of data centers," estimates nearly three quarters of global internet traffic passes over its digital infrastructure.

While technology firms with operations in Northern Virginia have touted strong commitments to renewables, Dominion Energy Inc. and its Virginia utility have used the growth of data centers in Northern Virginia to justify investments in natural gas-fired power plants and natural gas pipelines, including the $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Less than 5% of Dominion's generating fleet is sourced from renewables such as wind and solar.

Relying on filings with Virginia state agencies and other publicly available data, the environmental advocacy group estimated that 12% of Amazon.com Inc. Virginia data centers are powered with local renewable energy in contrast to its systemwide 100% renewable energy goal and a statement that 50% of its energy was from renewables in 2018. The report estimated Facebook Inc.'s local renewables usage at 37%, Microsoft Corp.'s local renewables usage at 34% and Google LLC's local renewables usage at 4%. Greenpeace said that Apple Inc. and Salesforce.com inc. do not have Virginia data centers but offset 100% and 44% of their colocation leases with renewables.

Amazon's cloud unit Amazon Web Services Inc., or AWS, accounts for nearly 1,700 MW of the roughly 4,500 MW of existing and planned data center energy demand in Virginia, Greenpeace said.

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Amazon and Google, two of the world's largest tech firms, however, have disputed their depiction in the report.

"Greenpeace has chosen to report inaccurate data about the energy consumption and renewable mix of AWS's infrastructure and did not perform proper due-diligence by fact checking with AWS before publishing," the spokesperson said in an email, arguing that Greenpeace overstated its current and projected energy usage. "AWS remains firmly committed to achieving 100% renewable energy across our global network, achieving 50% renewable energy in 2018," the spokesperson said, pointing to "a lot of exciting initiatives planned for 2019."

An AWS spokesperson declined to correct the alleged inaccuracies when asked by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

The environmental group also failed to "properly highlight" AWS's efforts to promote renewable energy in Virginia, the spokesperson said, citing its work with Dominion Energy Virginia, known legally as Virginia Electric and Power Co., on a market-based rate to promote corporate renewable energy purchases. The work on the rate was included in the report, but Greenpeace suggested other policy options would make a more direct impact on renewable investment.

The Greenpeace report acknowledged AWS's contracts with an affiliate of Dominion Energy for the output from six solar projects in Virginia, totaling about 260 MW, in addition to an agreement to purchase power from the 208 MW Amazon Wind Farm US East in North Carolina, as resources that feed power to AWS data centers in Virginia. Greenpeace applied capacity factors of 22% for solar and 34.6% for onshore wind, however, in crediting AWS with just 132 MW of renewables.

"Amazon Web Services and Amazon have consistently refused to report their energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions, leaving the public in the dark about their carbon footprint," Greenpeace said. Other leading tech companies, on the other hand, "have steadily improved their transparency and environmental reporting" since the group began publishing a series of reports on their energy and environmental impacts, it added. "To hold the company accountable for its progress, it has to be transparent," Greenpeace said in an emailed statement.

The environmental advocacy group called on technology giants to push Dominion and Virginia lawmakers to increase investments in renewables and allow more direct access to renewables by technology and other firms.

Shooting for 24/7 renewables

Google, which along with its parent company Alphabet Inc., claimed to have offset its entire global energy consumption with renewable energy purchases in 2017, also waived off the report's critique of the company for not having procured renewable energy for its data centers under development in Virginia.

"As part of our commitment to purchase 100% renewable energy for our operations... we expect to source renewable energy for our facilities in Virginia after they come online," a Google spokeswoman said in an email. "Going forward, we're committed to maintaining [100% renewables] as our business grows, and also to striving towards a model where we purchase carbon-free energy on a 24x7 basis on every grid where we operate."

The company, which plans to invest $13 billion into offices and data centers across the U.S., including in Virginia, considers access to renewable energy resources as "a key component of our site selection process," she added.

Though Greenpeace recognized Google's contributions to corporate renewable energy purchasing globally, the environmental group hopes to see more such engagement in Virginia.

"We hope that Google along with other major internet companies will use their considerable influence to put their new facilities and the rest of Virginia on a rapid transition to renewable electricity, and not allow Dominion to use their expansion to justify further investments in fossil fuel infrastructure, like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline," Gary Cook, Greenpeace USA's senior corporate campaigner and a report co-author, said in an email.