The Bulletin

Department of Environmental Quality revises air pollution exception for data centers

By: - March 8, 2023 1:48 pm

Data centers in Ashburn, Virginia (Gerville / Getty Images)

After opposition during a public hearing and comment period, Virginia regulators are scaling back a proposal to allow data centers in Northern Virginia counties to run diesel generators over a three-month period to alleviate potential electric grid strains.

Initially, the Department of Environmental Quality proposed the temporary lifting of air emission limits, a change known as a variance, for data centers in the counties of Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax. But on Monday, DEQ restricted the variance to facilities in Loudoun.

[Read more: Va. regulators propose easing emission limits for data centers over power transmission concerns]

“DEQ takes the public participation process very seriously and is making appropriate revisions to the proposal based on that input,” said DEQ Director Michael Rolband in a statement on the revised variance.

In January, DEQ proposed the short-term change after PJM Interconnection, which operates the regional electric grid, had flagged in its five-year forecast rising electricity demand in Dominion territory due to data center development.

The variance would exempt from short-term air emission limits those data centers located in areas for which PJM issues a warning that there are acute strains on the transmission system. Those facilities would then be allowed to run their backup generators. The variance would be in effect until July 31. 

At a public hearing in Woodbridge Feb. 27, dozens of residents and groups opposed the temporary change, saying it could have negative health, environmental and noise impacts. 

At the same hearing, Josh Levi, president of the industry group the Data Center Coalition requested that DEQ narrow the variance to Loudoun. 

[Read more: Temporary air pollution exception for data centers sparks opposition in Northern Virginia]

“We recognize that DEQ proposed the variance extend to the counties of Prince William and Fairfax out of an abundance of caution,” Levi stated. “However, given Dominion’s assurance that the impact of the transmission constraint is limited to Eastern Loudoun County, we believe there is an opportunity to be more precise in addressing potential risks.” 

The region of Loudoun County known as Data Center Alley is home to the largest concentration of data centers in the world. Almost 300 data centers in Northern Virginia support about 70% of the world’s internet traffic.

The revised notice also includes DEQ estimates of how the variance could impact emissions from the approximately 4,151 diesel generators located at data centers in Loudoun County. 

A single generator at a Loudoun data center on average emits every hour almost 45 pounds of nitrous oxides and non-methane hydrocarbons, 24 pounds of carbon monoxide and 3 pounds of particulate matter. Particulate matter are tiny particles that, if ingested, can lead to heart and respiratory issues.

A Department of Environmental Quality chart on the estimated emissions from a single generator at a data center in Loudoun County. (Courtesy of DEQ)

DEQ said it does “not anticipate that any data center will need to use this variance.” 

“History indicates that those PJM events” that would trigger the variance “are rare, averaging approximately 24 hours per year over the past 5 years,” the agency wrote.

Along with the Data Center Coalition, a number of commenters also supported the variance, saying it will help facilities maintain reliability of the internet.

The comment period on the variance has been extended through April 21. Another public hearing will be held on April 6.


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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.