Virginia utility is urged to supply more renewable energy

15 August 2019
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​Companies including Apple and Microsoft that own data centers in Virginia are urging the local utility to use renewable energy to meet power demand increases from the state’s data centers.

Apple, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Salesforce want their operations powered with solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.
The utility, owned by Dominion Energy, wants to build several small natural gas-fired power plants to supply electricity to northern Virginia’s data centers, according to a company planning document approved last month.

The firms are asking Dominion and its Virginia regulators to ensure that the utility uses renewable energy plus storage to meet any expected increase in power demand, arguing that renewables plus storage are just as reliable as older fossil-fuel technology.

Patrick Flynn, vice president of sustainability at Salesforce, said: “Our goal is a grid that is powered 24/7 by clean, renewable energy.

“That means we have to think far bigger than the scale of Salesforce, outside of our own four walls and try to play a part in transforming the electricity sector overall.”

Salesforce purchases enough renewable energy to match about half the power used by its global operations and is aiming to meet its target of 100 percent renewable energy by 2022.

According to estimates, up to 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic flows through Virginia data centers and the industry generates more than $10.2 billion in annual revenue, according to the Northern Virginia Technology Council, which accounts for up to 43,000 local jobs.

Dominion said, in a statement, that it “shares the goals of our customers for a low-carbon future,” that it plans to add solar, offshore wind and try out battery storage technology with a 30-megawatt energy storage project that is required by Virginia law.

The company added “Cost continues to be an obstacle, but we are working with new technology to try to make it a cost-competitive reality for our customers.”

Alli Gold Roberts, a senior policy manager at Ceres, which has been working with the data center companies to press for renewables in Virginia, said: “There is significant urgency to tackle climate change.

“By relying on new natural gas plants, we have the potential to get locked into a technology that prevents us from rapidly reducing emissions and takes away our ability to be nimble and do more creative, innovative things.”

The data center companies already buy a lot of renewable energy across their entire technology infrastructure, as part of their clean-energy and carbon reduction goals.

Apple uses 100 percent clean energy to power its global facilities while Microsoft buys enough renewable energy in Virginia to match the amount of power of all its facilities use.

It also plans to directly power all of its data centers and other cloud-related operations with 60 percent renewables by 2020, generating funds from an internal carbon tax.

Dominion’s Virginia utility generates most of its power by burning natural gas (34 percent) and coal (27 percent), while nuclear plants generate about a third, and less than 6 percent comes from renewables. This includes solar, hydropower generated in North Carolina and several plants that burn wood and other biomaterials, according to the utility’s website.

In California, where Salesforce, LinkedIn and Apple are based, nearly half the state’s power is generated from solar, wind, hydroelectric dams and other renewables, according to the California Energy Commission, while 43 percent is generated by natural gas plants and 9 percent from nuclear power.

State lawmakers in 2018 passed a law that calls for California to use zero-emission electricity to supply all power usage by 2045.

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