Past the dense suburbs of western Washington, the view widens to expanses of fields and farmland – a panorama frequently interrupted by massive, windowless buildings housing the high-speed computers that make technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence.
These data centers are beginning to dot landscapes across the country, from Virginia to Oregon. Each of them has hundreds of servers and routers that send and receive data for daily tasks such as streaming content to mobile devices and processing high-speed financial transactions.
“It’s the engine that powers the machine,” says Gordon Dolven, director of Americas data center research for CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm. “Everything on your phone is stored somewhere between four walls. »
In recent years, the need for data centers has grown rapidly, fueled by changing work habits during the pandemic and the growth of cloud-based technologies. This means more buildings, more land, more cooling systems and more electricity to support the physical infrastructure that operates day and night.
Advances in technology will only increase the demand for data centers, said Noelle Walsh, corporate vice president of cloud computing innovation and operations at Microsoft. “As a society, we’re just getting started,” she said.
Additionally, developers need to address community concerns about these towering buildings, which are popping up next to housing estates and straining local power providers who have struggled to keep up with demand.
Northern Virginia is a data center hub, in part due to its proximity to major pieces of physical infrastructure that form the backbone of the internet. Amazon this year announced plans to build multiple data centers in Virginia by 2040, representing an estimated investment of $35 billion.
On the West Coast, a similar hub is found near Silicon Valley. The majority of global internet traffic passes through sites in these two regions, which act as essential transmission belts for the internet.
Industry analysts say there is a growing need to build data centers across the rest of the country, as part of an effort to bring them closer to customers and take advantage of the growing availability of networks at broadband in rural areas and small towns.
Besides the two coastal centers, US data centers are concentrated near major cities, from Atlanta to Seattle.
Large digital companies and the federal government often own and operate their own data centers. Other companies and administrations frequently rent space.
“Anyone who can move into someone else’s data center will,” says Jim Coakley, who develops, owns and manages high-security, high-density data centers. He built his first center in Northern Virginia nearly 20 years ago.
Loudoun County, Virginia is a key site for data centers, but neighboring Prince William County is also booming. County officials recently approved a major zoning change for 2,100 acres, paving the way for approximately 25 million square feet of new data centers.
The zoning decision is not without controversy. Known as the Digital Gateway, the land is close to Manassas National Battlefield Park, whose manager has expressed concern about “potential irreparable damage” to the site. Ann Wheeler, chairwoman of the Prince William Board of Supervisors and a staunch supporter of rezoning, lost re-election in the Democratic primaries last month after a grassroots campaign to oust her focused on her support for increasing the number of data centers.
“Try to find qualified land that has enough power to run these facilities – it takes ten times more than what I built in 2006,” Coakley said. It’s basically inhaling massive amounts of energy. »
The demand for data centers is so high that as soon as a project is on the drawing board, space is quickly taken over, even before it hits the market.
“Every building built is leased,” says Ryan Goeller, commercial real estate broker and principal of KLNB, specializing in Northern Virginia. “There is no vacancy. »
Some residents fear that the needs of the region’s data centers, such as the construction of new power lines and substations, will be subsidized by residents. Silicon Valley faces similar challenges, according to a February report by CBRE.
To reduce energy demand, industry is scrambling to find more efficient solutions, said Arman Shehabi, a scientist in the Department of Energy Technologies at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“There’s been a lot of growth, but also a lot of opportunities for efficiency and incentives for efficiency,” he said. And as major players in the data industry strive to become greener over the next decade, the pressure is on.
The growth of artificial intelligence “will require new kinds of efficiency,” Mr. Shehabi said. “Right now it uses a lot of electricity, but it’s not sure if that’s always the case. »
According to CBRE, power needs and the availability of qualified electricians drove many decisions in 2022 about where to locate data centers.
Other environmental concerns are also looming. Data center backup systems often rely on natural gas and diesel, which can work against clean energy efforts. Water needs are also increasing, Mr. Shehabi said.
“We need to be strategic in terms of where data centers are located and consider the level of water stress in the region when designing them,” he said.