Prince William County sustainability officials are crafting a plan to put the county on track to achieve regional climate commitments, but plans to welcome more data centers threaten to put the goals farther from reach.
This is the first in a two-part series, read the second installment here.
No doubt a bachelor’s degree in conservation studies gave Giulia Manno a leg up landing her job as Prince William County’s first sustainability officer.
Five months in, however, it’s even clearer to the 30-year-old why her seemingly unrelated master’s — in conflict analysis and resolution — likely gave her an edge over other candidates.
Right off the bat, she’s delving into the design of an energy and sustainability master plan for the booming northern Virginia county that is lagging woefully on its November 2020 commitment to curtail emissions of heat-trapping gases.
By itself, that’s daunting enough. It’s even more of a juggling act when messy skirmishes are the backdrop. The once-rural county renowned for iconic Civil War battlefield sites has been roiling since a contingent of the Board of Supervisors announced its intent to trade cherished green space for energy-hungry data centers.
The wrangling has so cleaved residents that a local watchdog group is circulating petitions to recall two of the eight board supervisors. Land use is at the center of the debate, but environmentalists also fear the mammoth developments could put ambitious carbon-slashing targets out of reach.
“I didn’t expect this to be easy,” said Manno, a graduate of nearby George Mason University. “I’m aware of all the challenges.”
Manno already drew upon her conflict resolution skillset while gaining environmental analysis experience at the World Bank and Georgetown University. She’s doubling down on those same tenets as Prince William grapples with being smack-dab in the heart of Virginia’s robust internet corridor.
Crafting a climate action plan isn’t an exercise completed in a bubble without harsh words and flaring tempers. Manno expects to be a referee, of sorts, as elected officials, business owners, longtime residents, newcomers and other entities butt heads while under pressure to hash out a future with new restrictions on development that some will surely find unfair.
Her top tactic for forming more of a give-to-get collegiality is to listen to everyone affected by the monumental effort to rein in emissions.
“This is about creating a plan that engages stakeholders along the way,” she said about including residents, nonprofits, businesses and the public sector. “I don’t want any surprises. It’s important that we go out in the community to meet people where they’re at and offer enough benefits to get buy-in to the plan.”
Manno’s mandate is to present recommendations for a climate action plan to the board by July 2023. Essentially, it’s expected to be a blueprint for Prince William to halve its carbon emissions below baseline 2005 levels by 2030 and power 100% of the county with renewable sources by 2035.
In the meantime, before that deadline arrives, the board is set to vote on three contentious land development proposals with the potential to throw those ambitious climate objectives out of whack.
One is an unprecedented ask by neighbors adjacent to the Manassas National Battlefield Park to amend the county’s comprehensive plan by selling a combined 800 acres to private companies that build data centers. The county has rolled that request into an overarching scheme for a 2,139-acre Digital Gateway that would replace agricultural land in Prince William’s safeguarded rural crescent with server farms.
Relatedly, the county is also updating its comprehensive plan to guide Prince William’s growth through 2040. And tied to that, officials are seeking to broaden the 8,700 acres countywide dedicated in 2016 to an overlay district for data center development.
The Virginia Sierra Club doesn’t deny that data centers are a crucial cog in the computer-dependent 21st century. However, members have found Prince William’s maneuverings egregious enough to join conservation groups asking the county to reconsider its approach to growth.
“It’s as if the county hasn’t gotten the memo about not doing development from the 1960s and 1970s today,” said Ann Bennett, a volunteer who focuses on climate and energy issues with the Great Falls Group of the club’s Virginia chapter. “They’re moving forward as if climate change doesn’t exist.”
Bennett and other alliance leaders are adamant that server farms be sited on land already designated for that purpose. They claim that approach would limit carbon pollution and suburban sprawl, and protect cultural resources and green space.
As well, leaders wonder how Prince William would be able to power up to 27 million square feet of commercial development proposed for the Digital Gateway when neighboring Loudoun County has encountered a snag in procuring enough electrons for its gargantuan data center hub.
“Taken together, (these proposals) constitute an about-face that threatens to transform Prince William County forever,” Bennett wrote in a lengthy February letter to supervisors. “These major ‘updates’ portend to be a major downgrade.”
A board vote on an updated comprehensive plan has been pushed back several times because of community pushback and other delays. Now, October action looks more likely. In an ideal world, Manno said her climate action plan would be finished first so it could serve as a master navigational tool before a proposal as large as the Digital Gateway is green-lighted. With such overarching guidance, all government decision makers would be able to weigh with certainty the carbon impact of new construction, roadways and other developments. “Some things are not my call,” she said about the extent of her powers. “I do what I can do.”
One saving grace, she added, is that planners have agreed that the comprehensive plan can be amended later to accommodate sustainability concerns. She’s optimistic such flexibility will smooth the county’s ability to tame carbon pollution.
“I hope these timelines underscore the importance of taking action as soon as possible,” she said. “We need to be decisive and action-oriented.”
Prince William an emissions outlier
County board chair Ann Wheeler spelled out her data center vision for Prince William since rising to that position in January 2020. Residents in the county of 484,000 carry too much of the tax burden, she claims, adding that the commercial and industrial sectors need to swell and pick up the slack.
What some perceive as a too-aggressive stance means Wheeler is one of the two supervisors being targeted with a recall petition.
However, Wheeler is convinced that she and a majority of her board colleagues are taking a balanced approach to both growing and greening the county. She didn’t comment about data centers, but she did highlight the county’s decisions to endorse limits on greenhouse gas emissions, write a climate action plan and put money into a previously unfunded sustainability program. A built-out Digital Gateway could generate roughly $400 million, according to an evaluation by the county finance department.
In 2020, data centers generated roughly $13.50 in tax revenue for every dollar Prince William County invested in their infrastructure and other costs, according to a March report from the Northern Virginia Technology Council. That tax revenue figure was $13.20 in abutting Loudoun County, which has at least 140 data centers.
With its rising carbon pollution, Prince William is an outlier among the entities tracked by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). Community-wide emissions rose 19% between 2005 and 2018 in Prince William. That contrasts sharply with an overall drop of 13% across the region.
COG, a nonprofit, is made up of Washington, D.C. and 23 other cities, towns and counties in Virginia and Maryland featuring urban, suburban and rural communities. In an effort to guide the region’s climate resilience goals, COG updated its emissions targets in October 2020 — the same ones Prince William endorsed a month later.
To hit that 50% reduction goal in just eight years, Prince William will need to curtail emissions at least 58% from its 2018 levels. That arithmetic has Manno paying attention to two major emitters — commercial buildings and transportation.
“They are the fastest-growing sectors,” she said. “That’s where we must pay attention.”
‘What is the sweet spot?’
A network of fiber optic cable, ready access to electric power and proximity to the internet’s origins have fueled fervor for Prince William County from the likes of Amazon, Meta, Microsoft, Google and industries that rely on mega-data and analytics.
Through January, Prince William already had 33 completed data center buildings totaling 5.4 million square feet, according to the county Department of Economic Development. Eight more projects are under construction. That county leaders want to be a magnet for an explosion in cloud computing is certainly not lost on Randall Freed, who chairs the advisory Sustainability Commission the county formed in December.
“We have a classic balancing act between the desire for economic development and the desire to maintain and improve the environmental quality of the whole county,” Freed said. “The question is, what is the sweet spot for economic development while reducing, rather than growing, emissions?”
Freed, whose eight-member commission is collaborating with Manno on the climate blueprint, is well-suited for the task. Five years ago, he retired from ICF as manager of the global consulting firm’s climate and sustainability division.
Aware that rezoning proposals have become community lightning rods, Freed emphasizes that the commission doesn’t weigh in on specific projects such as the Digital Gateway.
Among other particulars, it’s incumbent on Freed’s commission to parse out exactly how data centers influence the fast-growing county’s carbon footprint. Part of that requires peeling back the onion on figures COG compiled.
Conversations with COG analysts have assured Freed that the county’s documented growth in commercial electricity use between 2005 and 2018 can be attributed primarily to data centers.
In 2018 alone, COG reported in its latest full data set that the commercial and residential building sectors comprised 54% of Prince William’s total carbon emissions from all fuel sources.
COG acknowledges that many owners and operators of data companies are investing in power purchase agreements and other mechanisms because of corporate commitments to carbon neutrality.
That said, Freed is frustrated by how difficult it is to find definitive numbers from the industry on the carbon intensity of electricity used by existing and proposed data centers.
Lacking those specifics means it’s trickier for the county to reach decisions that align with Prince William’s commitment to a carbon diet.
“The supervisors must feel as if they are living in a data blizzard,” Freed said. “They’re getting all kinds of information from all kinds of people.”
Indeed, even the president of the Data Center Coalition, said it’s impossible to convert the square footage of a building into megawatt hours used because of construction variability.
Data center data hard to find
“I’m sorry I can’t give even a range with any sort of conviction,” Josh Levi said in an interview from his Northern Virginia office. The coalition’s headquarters is in Loudoun County, adjacent to Prince William.
Collectively, data centers account for roughly 2% of the nation’s electricity use, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. As one of the most energy-intensive building types, data centers consume 10 to 50 times the energy per floor space of a typical commercial office building.
Nationwide, big tech is “leaning in” to green energy and efficiency, Levi said, as the storage model evolved from mom and pop arrangements to utility-style behemoths.
Levi cited a 2020 federally funded study revealing that even though overall computing firepower overall grew 600% between 2010 and 2018, corresponding electricity usage increased only 6%.
Data centers in Virginia were an early driver of renewable energy, Levi said, noting that in 2019 they accounted for about half of the solar Dominion Energy had built or had in the planning stages. That figure dropped to 36% as other public and commercial entities now clamor for solar.
Solar and energy efficiency are all well and good, said the Sierra Club’s Bennett. Still, she is irked that the county board wants to designate prime land for data centers when the carbon footprint of such buildouts is unclear.
The conservation alliance would prefer that new data centers be sited on dormant property originally designated for that purpose because key infrastructure already exists there. Bennett reasons that deviating from that original containment plan will add roads and traffic that boost carbon emissions.
That exact number is disputed, but recent county figures indicate that as many as 1,800-plus acres inside the 8,700-acre overlay district are still vacant. Each parcel is at least 30 acres, considered a viable size for data center development.
However, Levi counters that bigger is always better. Smaller, non-contiguous sites aren’t practical because it confines construction to a “piecemeal and patchwork” approach that discourages investment, he said.
“The trend is to build campus environments,” Levi said. “Instead of one-offs, you see clusters of buildings located near one another. It’s about economies of scale.”
Meanwhile, Freed is trying to stick to the science while steering the sustainability commission he chairs toward a climate action plan that will flip Prince William’s reputation as a carbon pollution laggard.
“It’s not like this development just started,” Freed said about the emergence of data centers seven years ago. “This train has been on the track and rolling.
“But it’s going to take a lot of effort to bend the emissions curve downward. And we need to bend it way down to reach the regional target.”
Elizabeth McGowan is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, “Outpedaling ‘The Big C’: My Healing Cycle Across America” is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.