MANASSAS, Virginia – In a cloud-computing universe, Northern Virginia could be in a perpetual fog.
More data centers that power the cloud are clustered in the region than anywhere else in the world.
As cloud computing, which helps deliver data storage and other services over the Internet, continues to grow exponentially, the appetite for new data centers continues to grow.
And increasingly, the communities adjoining the centers are complaining about their new neighbors, mostly about the noise of the constantly whirring fans needed to cool the computers and servers stored inside.
“It’s just a constant hum at an unpleasant frequency,” said Dale Browne, president of the Great Oak Homeowners Association. Residents recently led a protest outside a nearby data center in Prince William County, which was recently built to support Amazon Web Services.
Browne said he preferred the quarry occupying the land at the data center. And he fears the noise will get worse in the winter, when a line of trees that provides a sort of buffer loses its leaves.
Speakers at the protest said they fear Prince William County, Va., is set to join neighboring Loudoun County, known as the data center capital of the world.
“We are the canary in the coal mine,” Browne said.
Northern Virginia has been a technology hub since the inception of the Internet and now hosts more data centers than the next five largest US markets combined, according to the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
Collectively, Northern Virginia data centers require about 1,900 megawatts of electricity, said Josh Levi, president of the Data Center Coalition, an industry trade group. This is roughly equivalent to the total output of Dominion Energy’s nuclear reactors at its North Anna power station in Prince William County.
Browne and his neighbors say data center noise routinely exceeds the local 60-decibel limit for noise — an Amazon study disputes that — but that’s largely a moot point because the noise ordinance of the county exempts air conditioning units. Campaigners say the ordinance 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 was installing acoustic shrouds at the site as part of its noise reduction efforts.
“Resolving the noise issues of our neighbors in Prince William County is a priority for us,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
Noise isn’t the only problem. Spencer Snakard, president of Protect Fauquier, worries that more data centers will require more high-voltage transmission lines to deliver the massive amounts of electricity they need, destroying views and posing their own potential health risks.
“I see these noisy monstrosities a lot like the computers of the 1960s and 1970s: massive, bulky, ugly and in their infancy stage,” she said.
Not all residents are opposed to data centers. In the Gainesville, Virginia area, a group of landowners proposed that their land be decommissioned from agricultural use to allow them. County staff recommended approving this ahead of the September 14 planning commission vote.
Mary Ann Ghadban, 68, of Gainesville is one of the landlords who would sell if the area was rezoned. A lifelong county resident, she built what she called her “dream barn” on her 55-acre horse farm.
“All my neighbors, we were all elders. We were going to live here until we died,” she said.
But after the power company built high-voltage transmission lines across her property in 2008, she said her horses suffered from health problems and property values plummeted. Property developers have taken over nearby land and its rural enclave has become something else.
“It breaks our hearts, but it’s a fact: it’s not rural anymore,” she said. “We should have opened up this area to data centers years ago because you’ve already ruined the property. You’ve already ruined people’s lives by adding massive transmission towers, so put the data centers where already find the current.”
There is also the opposition of nearby Manassas Battlefield National Park.
Superintendent Brandon Bies compared the threat to Disney’s bid 30 years ago to build a theme park near the battlefield – a proposal that environmentalists and other activists have notoriously scuttled – and pushed back on the idea that the transmission lines have already destroyed the rural character of the area.
“Although indeed unsightly, the agricultural and historic nature of the western edge of the battlefield is still largely intact,” he wrote in a letter to the county council.
Counties that snub data centers would deny a lucrative source of tax revenue.
Data centers now provide more than 30% of the overall budget for Loudoun County, a suburb of the nation’s capital with a population of more than 400,000.
While the windfall has been a boon for Loudoun, Phyllis Randall, chairwoman of the county board of supervisors, raised concerns about overreliance on industry.
“I’m no economist, but even I know that not diversifying your economy to that degree becomes a bit dangerous,” she said at a February meeting where a board committee discussed reviewed plans to manage data center growth.
Levi, with the Data Center Coalition, said northern Virginia remains a particularly attractive location for a number of reasons. It underscores the region’s history as an internet hub for newbies — in a business where nanoseconds matter, and so does proximity to those hubs, Levi said.
Additionally, Virginia was one of the first states to establish data center tax incentives.
He acknowledged that community resistance has grown as the industry has grown. The industry is generally tight-lipped about its safety requirements and needs to do more to promote its beneficial impacts, as well as its progress in designing centers with less impact on the environment, he said. .
“I think you’ve seen a lot of continuous innovation and design changes in response to community concerns,” he said.