Manassas, Virginia – In the world of cloud computing, Northern Virginia may be in a perpetual fog.
More cloud-fed data centers in the region are clustered outside the nation’s capital than anywhere else in the world.
As cloud computing – which enables data storage and other services delivered over the Internet – continues to increase exponentially, the desire to create new data centers continues to grow. Increasingly, communities bordering the centers are complaining about their new neighbours, mostly about the noise from constantly humming fans needed to cool the computers and servers stored inside.
It’s just a constant sound on an obnoxious frequency,” said Dale Brown, president of the Great Oak Homeowners Association. Residents there led a recent protest outside a nearby data center in Prince William County, newly built to support Amazon Web Services.
Brown said he preferred the quarry that occupies the land over the data center. And he worries that the noise will get worse in the winter, when a group of trees are shedding leaves that provide a bit of insulation.
Speakers at the protest said they feared Prince William County was about to join its neighbor Loudoun County, which is known as the data center capital of the world.
“We are the canary in the coal mine,” Brown said.
Northern Virginia has been a tech hub since the Internet was formed, and now hosts more data centers than the five largest US markets combined, according to the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
Combined, Northern Virginia data centers require about 1,900 megawatts of power, said Josh Levy, president of the Data Center Alliance, an industry trade group. This roughly equals the total production of the Dominion Energy nuclear reactors at the North Anna Power Plant.
Brown and his neighbors say noise from the data center regularly exceeds the local 60 decibels noise limit — an Amazon study that questions this — but it’s largely a moot point because the county’s noise law excludes air-conditioning units. Activists say the law was written more than 30 years ago and never anticipated the massive cooling systems used in data centers.
Amazon Web Services, for its part, said it is installing acoustic coverings on site as part of its noise reduction efforts.
“Addressing our neighbors’ noise concerns in Prince William County is a priority for us,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
Noise is not the only issue. Spencer Snackard, president of Protect Fauquier, worries that more data centers will require more high-voltage transmission lines to deliver the massive amounts of electricity they require, destroying views and causing potential health risks.
“I see these wild, loud things like computers in the ’60s and ’70s: huge, bulky, ugly, and childish,” she said.
Not all residents are against data centers. In the Gainesville area, a group of landlords proposed to redivide their land from agricultural use to allow them to do so. County staff recommended approval of this prior to a planning committee vote on September 14.
Mary Ann Furious of Gainesville, 68, is one of the property owners who would sell if the area were rezoned. A lifelong county resident, she built what she called her “dream barn” on her 55-acre horse ranch.
“All my neighbors, we’ve all been for a long time,” she said. “We’d live here until we died.”
But after the electric company built high-voltage transmission lines across her property in 2008, she said her horses suffered from poor health effects, and property values plummeted. Housing developers have taken over nearby spaces, and its rural enclave has become something else.
“It breaks our hearts,” she said, “but it’s a fact: The area is no longer rural.” “This area should have been open to data centers years ago, because you really destroyed the property. You really destroyed people’s lives by adding huge transmission towers, so put the data centers where the power really is.”
There is also opposition from nearby Manassas National Park Battlefield. Supervisor Brandon Pace likened the threat to Disney’s attempt 30 years ago to build an amusement park near the battlefield — a proposal made famous by environmentalists and other activists — and defended the idea that transit lines had already destroyed the area’s rural character.
“Although really ugly, the agricultural and historical nature of the western edge of the battlefield remains largely intact,” he wrote in a letter to the county council.
Counties that ignore data centers will reject a lucrative source of tax revenue.
Data centers now provide more than 30 percent of the general fund budget for Loudoun County, a suburb of the country’s capital with more than 400,000 residents.
While the windfall was a boon for Loudon, Phyllis Randall, chair of the county board of supervisors, has raised concerns about an over-reliance on the industry.
“I’m no economist, but even I know that not diversifying your economy to that degree becomes a bit dangerous,” she said at the February meeting where a board committee considered plans to manage data center growth.
Northern Virginia remains a particularly attractive location for a number of reasons, said Levy, of the Data Center Alliance. Levy said he points to the area’s history as a start-up internet hub — in the nanosecond business that matters, as well as the proximity to those centers.
Additionally, Virginia was one of the first states to institute tax incentives for data centers.
He admitted that society’s resistance increased with the expansion of industry. He said the industry is usually silent due to its security requirements, and needs to do more to enhance its beneficial effects, along with advances in designing centers to have a lower environmental impact.
“I think you’ve seen a lot of continued innovation and design changes in response to community concerns,” he said.