Amazon to Buy Solar Energy for Virginia Data Centers
Amazon CTO Werner Vogels speaking at its re:Invent conference in Las Vegas last November. (Screenshot: re:Invent live stream)

Amazon to Buy Solar Energy for Virginia Data Centers

Cloud provider signs long-term PPA with developer of 80MW solar project

Amazon will support construction and operation of an 80 MW solar farm in Accomack County, Virginia, which will be called Amazon Solar Farm US East. This is the company's second big renewable power purchase agreement in the US this year following a wind deal in Indiana.

Amazon Web Services, the company's cloud services arm, is teaming with Community Energy to support the construction and operation of the solar farm, which is expected to start generating 170,000 MWh of solar power annually as early as October 2016.

Virginia is a big state for data centers but not solar farms. The Amazon project will be the largest solar farm there, with all energy generated delivered into the electrical grid that supplies AWS cloud data centers in the state.

The bulk of Amazon data center capacity is in Virginia, served by Dominion Power, a utility whose fuel mix includes only 2 percent of renewables, the rest coming from coal, nuclear, and gas-powered plants, according to Greenpeace. The future wind farm is about 200 miles away from the big data center cluster in Northern Virginia.

Amazon Solar Farm US East will serve both existing and planned AWS data centers in the central and eastern US, said Jerry Hunter, vice president of infrastructure at AWS. The plant has the added benefit of working to increase the amount of renewable energy available in the Commonwealth of Virginia, he added.

AWS has been a black sheep in Greenpeace’s roundup of cloud providers, called out for its use of dirty energy. The company made a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy usage for AWS in November 2014.

The year kicked off with Amazon signing a long-term power purchase agreement in Indiana. The 150-megawatt wind farm, called Amazon Web Services, Wind Farm, is scheduled to come online early next year. It will generate about 500,000 MWh annually, according to AWS, which has a 13-year PPA with Pattern Energy Group, the project’s developer.

Amazon also announced earlier this year it was piloting Tesla batteries in its US West region last month. Batteries are not only important for data center reliability, but are enablers for the efficient application of renewable power. One of the biggest barriers to widespread adoption of wind and solar energy is intermittency of generation, which can be addressed with efficient energy storage.

Virginia is home base for AWS US East, the largest region for the cloud services business which makes $6 billion in revenue per year. It's also home to three edge locations and a burgeoning GovCloud Region built specifically for government needs.

Two Amazon data center construction projects are in the works in the region. A developer is reportedly building a massive data center for it in Ashburn. The construction project was recently in the news after it caught on fire. Another proposed Amazon data center in Haymarket has run into opposition from a group of residents over Dominion’s plans for construction of a new power line.

The new solar farm is a step toward meeting the company's commitment to use 100 percent renewable energy for its data centers. But given the company's sheer size and presence in Northern Virginia, there is still a long way to go.

What might be interesting to see is influence, if any, AWS will have on Dominion Power, the utility giant serving one of the largest data center clusters in the world. As massive web-scale players make big investments in renewable energy, the multi-tenant data center industry would certainly leverage the infrastructure there.

Data centers are big customers, and the customer is always right. Google and Apple lobbied Duke Energy in North Carolina, convincing the largest utility in the US to pump a $500 million investment into renewable energy.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe saw the news as very positive for the state at large. “Amazon’s new solar project will create good jobs on the Eastern Shore and generate more clean, renewable energy to fuel the new Virginia economy,” McAuliffe said in a statement. “I look forward to working with Amazon and Accomack to get this project online as we continue our efforts to make Virginia a global leader in the renewable energy sector.”

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