Worldwatch Perspective: Bali’s Promise in…Northern Virginia?

Transmission Lines
Transmission Lines
Photo by Diego Alvarado via Flickr

Electricity supply is usually a juicy news story only if you’re a business maven or a utility expert. But the greater Washington, D.C. area is moving toward a real-life dilemma over its aging grid that could help define how the United States as a whole addresses the threat of human-induced climate change.

Here in the Mid-Atlantic states, where most electricity comes from the combustion of coal, we’re sucking more juice than ever into our homes, offices, and factories. Or rather, since we don’t really have factories here, into our “data centers”—giant warehouses of computer servers that respond to the vast galaxies of data that swirl constantly from scanners and keyboards onto whirring hard drives cooled by carefully conditioned air. All this electricity use sends millions of tons of globe-warming carbon dioxide into the air annually. And there’s no sign of a slackening in our demand.

The population and economic projections for the area suggest that we’ll see more people, more real-estate development, and a lot more data centers as computer-service and other high-tech companies gravitate to the region. Clean industry? Yes, in the old sense of what “clean” meant in environmental terms. No smokestacks.

But data centers use massive amounts of electricity and thus contribute massive amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, as recent reports from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the British environmental group Global Action Plan have pointed out. The EPA estimates that last year, the amount of electricity U.S. data centers consumed could have kept the refrigerators humming in nearly 6 million households. The Global Action Plan puts the centers right up there with SUVs and the aviation industry as carbon gluttons.

Eying the expected increases in demand on the regional electricity grid, Maryland’s Public Service Commission has proposed reimposing state regulation on the state’s utilities to force them to boost electricity supply through “a combination of new transmission lines, conservation programs and forced construction of generation facilities,” according to a recent Washington Post story.

The commission’s report recommended against wind power for the needed new generation. As Post reporter Lisa Rein explains, the commissioners argued that wind power, “despite its environmental benefits and popularity with state policymakers, would not bring [electricity] prices down in the short or long term, partly because it is unreliable.”

That’s pretty discouraging, especially since a few pages away from this one in the Post was another article citing a draft report by a governmental commission on climate change—also in Maryland—which recommends that the state commit to a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

That’s a laudable goal, but unless we start thinking really differently about meeting our growing demand for power, a commitment to slash our emissions by 90 percent is going to forever remain a commitment rather than an actual achievement. In Takoma Park, Maryland, where I live, the city council made a similar pledge in 2000, in this case to cut the town’s greenhouse gas emissions back to 80 percent 0f 1990 levels by 2010. With three years yet to go, emissions have grown steadily since 2000, and no one on the council has a plan or any hope of honoring the commitment.

This is where the work to prevent catastrophic change lies: in homes, our communities, our states, and our countries. The international climate change conference taking place right now in Bali is hardly just a distraction. The world will need some kind of enforceable—and enforced—compact to make sure we can solve this global problem in a world of independent nations. But the hard-slogging work of actually slashing emissions and stopping human-induced climate change will take place much closer to home.

Just across the Potomac River from the Worldwatch office is Northern Virginia, where something interesting is happening in the struggle to reduce electricity demand rather than simply boost supply like economic automatons. And this brings us back to data centers, some of whose owners may actually be on the cutting edge of the really new “clean industry.”

Northern Virginia has five data centers—and blistering growth in demand for juice. So Dominion Virginia Power of Richmond has proposed running a new power line through 65 miles of rural Virginia to prepare for the growth. And did the local technology companies cheer this planned boost to their economic security? Strangely, no.

Most either declined to comment on the plan or came out against it as the wrong approach to the possibility of a future power shortage. How’s this for an example of new thinking, from yet a third article in the Post: “Most business owners today in my peer group would much rather see solutions based on technology using less power and less demand on the grid rather than adding new capacity.” That’s a quotation from Patrick J. Sweeney II, president and chief executive of Odin Technologies in Dulles, Va., one of the big local consumers of electricity.

There’s hope, but a lot of hard work ahead. Saying no to the expansion of the nation’s electricity grid—and saying yes to greater efficiency and the dampening of demand—is a step toward making sure that Bali isn’t wasting the planet’s precious time.

Robert Engelman is Vice President for Programs at the Worldwatch Institute.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

Electricity supply is usually a juicy news story only if you’re a business maven or a utility expert.