Get Off My Lawn … You Crazy Data Centers!

After encountering NIMBY protestors at DICE Bisnow, Bill Kleyman looks at how data centers are addressing community concerns and striving to be better neighbors.

Bill Kleyman

June 16, 2023

13 Min Read
Photo of people protesting data centers in Virginia.
Yuval Bachar, ECL

I guess there's a first time for everything. I attended the DICE Bisnow event in Virginia, and outside of the fantastic conversations I had with brilliant industry insiders, data center professionals, and folks trying to push this industry forward, I also saw something for the first time. Protesters.

Photo of people protesting data centers in Virginia.

Protest 2 Yuval Bachar

That's right, real sign-holding, frustrated, and angry protesters. To be perfectly honest, this was the first time in my career that I experienced "not in my backyard" or NIMBY. These people were literally telling us to get off their lawns. On the one hand, it's pretty cool to be now known in mainstream society. However, this isn't the best way to make the mainstream news.

What were their concerns? Here's a brief list:

  1. Data center greenwashing and marketing dishonesty.

  2. Water conservation concerns.

  3. Data centers are massive energy hogs.

  4. Encroachment into national parks and key rural areas.

I hope someone from the communities opposing data centers reads this because I have a straightforward message: You're right. And your concerns are all valid.

As a young person in this industry, I've been working with schools and communities to drive more talent into this industry. Many of our barriers have been because others don't know we exist or have preconceived notions about what we do.

Related:NIMBYs Against Data Centers: A Problem That Requires Diplomacy

"There are definitely significant questions around the industry, and that has led to some of the pushback," Josh Levi, president of the Data Center Coalition, a trade association of data center owners and operators with 19 members, told Data Center Knowledge. "It's something that we as an industry are taking very seriously. My belief is that it is rooted in a need for education and outreach. The top line issue is that the data center industry is not well-understood."

This lack of knowledge and frustration spilled into a lawsuit filed earlier this year. A public interest group and two private citizens are suing the Prince William County Board of County Supervisors for their approval of the PW Digital Gateway. This allows data center zoning in rural, protected, and historic areas.

Data Center Knowledge obtained a copy of the lawsuit from In it, complainants outlined the history of the protracted battle to prevent the creation of the Digital Gateway, which will facilitate data center-friendly zoning in rural parts of Prince William County, and near Manassas National Battlefield Park.

African American and Civil War historic preservation interest groups also opposed the Digital Gateway because data center construction would unearth burial grounds and their ancestors' remains.

Related:NIMBY and the Data Center: Lessons From the Battle of Newark

Excerpt from the lawsuit filed in Prince William County District Court.

Excerpt from the lawsuit filed in Prince William County District Court.

These are all valid concerns. At stake for residents of these densely populated data center alleys are real concerns around noise pollution, compromised waterways, and increased density of commercial buildings.

So, what's the solution? How do we go from "get off my lawn" to hanging out in your backyard for a BBQ?

Data centers must become a part of the community rather than another building

With the rise of new technologies like ChatGPT and AI, the need for data centers and digital infrastructure isn't going away. In my recent article on construction constraints, I discussed vacancy rates. I referenced the 2022 Q2 Market Vacancy report from Data Center Hawk in my writing. At that time, the vacancy rate was 4.4%, the lowest ever.

Fast forward to today. The latest Data Center Hawk Market recap report showcased the lowest vacancy rate of the top 10 North American markets, at 2.88%. Despite moderation in hyperscale leasing, demand is still outpacing providers' ability to deliver new capacity due to long delivery timelines and power procurement delays.

Demand is outpacing supply, and we are trying to build as quickly as possible. Growth in our data center industry will likely mean more protests, mainstream media attention, and community challenges.

However, these conversations also bring all of us an extraordinary opportunity. That is, to learn together. "These protests are a clear sign that NIMBY sentiment is still something the data center industry needs to address," states Vlad Galabov, Head of the Cloud and Data Center Research Practice at Omdia.

With growth continuing and unprecedented rates, there becomes a critical need for us to do some positive education and PR. Not greenwashing! Instead, genuine and honest conversations around who we are, what we do well, and where we can improve.

Let's have a moment of honesty. Not all data centers are built the same. Some are massive energy consumers that only invest in green resources on paper. Some do consume water without having a real strategy to offload that water consumption. And, with legacy designs, some data centers are noisy and challenging for communities.

"There is a need for a clear effort to (1) increase the awareness of the synergies between data centers and their surrounding environment, including the fact that they power the digital economy, (2) create an even more symbiotic relationship between data centers and their neighbors through the adoption of new practices which directly benefit the local community like heat reuse, electric grid interaction, and water recycling," adds Galabov.

To the people holding the signs, this section is for you

As mentioned earlier, I want the folks having challenges with data center construction to know that we do hear you. We want to be better neighbors, and we want to be a part of the community. I want to point out a few efforts we've been taking as a community to show you that we care about our neighbors and communities.

Before I go on, please note, again, not all data centers are built the same. However, leaders in this space are concentrating on doing better for this world.

1. Noise pollution

This is a legit concern as some facilities are built close to communities and homes. I was part of a project that had to prove that our facilities were not loud. In fact, modern designs will produce 50-60 dB or less of sound. These levels are no more than a normal conversation between two people.

2. Social equity and being a more conscious neighbor

The above example of exposing historical sites and burial grounds is a genuine concern. These challenges happen more than some think. With land values increasing, many leaders in the data center space now take extra steps during their planning and site evaluation surveys. That said, community outreach begins with talking to the local community about where construction can begin, causing the least disruption, or can find ways to honor the local community's history (such as making donations to historical preservation efforts, etc.). With permitting and working with local governing bodies, many of our leaders acknowledge that the data center industry should make efforts to cause minimal disruption when beginning new construction projects. For example, one hyperscale data center studied its newly purchased multi-hundred-acre site. In one corner of the site, they found an ancient Native American burial ground. The good news is that it was in a far corner of the construction site, and the entire area was left undisturbed and in its original form. In another example, a data center builder ensured that trees housing eagles would not be disturbed while building a facility. These measures included completely pausing construction until the birds migrated. One note, their nests were left in the same spot and undisturbed.

I recently wrote an article here on DCK covering construction constraints. We discussed how leaders in the digital infrastructure community are taking a more conscious approach to permitting and working with the land. It's important to note that as the data center industry becomes more distributed, there will be more facilities in rural areas. As an industry, we must continue to support our local towns and cities where we deploy. Remember, we're not just another building; we need to be actively good community members.

3. Water conservation

We're going to spend a few extra minutes on this topic. Water conservation efforts are a top-line initiative for many data center leaders. Recently, Arizona officials announced that the state would no longer grant certifications for new developments within the Phoenix area as groundwater rapidly disappears amid years of water overuse and climate change-driven drought. In the Southwest, this concern expands into California and Nevada.

However, there are concentrated efforts to overcome these issues. One example is my former company, Switch. In 2021, under a public and private initiative, construction began on a 16-mile pipeline, which will deliver 4,000 acre-feet of treated effluent water from Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility (TMWRF) in Sparks to the TRI Center.

The pipeline will support all of the water requirements at the campus when it is completed sometime in 2023.

"Switch is proud to have been part of this critical infrastructure project from inception through fruition," said Switch President Thomas Morton. "This innovative solution helps not only Switch, but our 1,300 plus global customers, operate mission-critical technology infrastructure in the most sustainable way using 100% recycled water to protect the area's precious natural resources."

These projects are a big deal. They remove nitrates from local river sources and open the capacity to build tens of thousands of additional homes in the area.

There are other highly innovative methods for creating water-neutral data center designs. For example, Nautilus Data Technologies takes a literal approach to becoming a 'downstream' data center. Nautilus's water-cooling technology can intake cool water from any water source, such as greywater or any water body, including lake, river, or ocean. From the large drum intake, the water travels through a multi-step, multi-element filtration process that causes zero harm to wildlife with no chemical additives. The coolness of the water is brought into the heat plate exchanger to cool the water from the closed loop system. When complete, the water is returned to the source with only a minimal increase in temperature. We're talking about just a degree or two.

Here's why this is so important. These designs leverage zero water consumption, return all used water to the source in an inert state, and use 30% less energy to cool the infrastructure.

Finally, I want to showcase how a large hyperscale company, Amazon, aligns directly with communities and farms. "Besides the land we own, water is one of our greatest assets," Vern Fredrickson, a local wheat farmer and the vice chair of the Board of Directors for the West Extension Irrigation District in Oregon, told "Every gallon is important to the community, especially for farmers like me."

Fredrickson now gets his irrigation water from nearby AWS data centers. In a plan to develop a solution to recycle the water used to cool AWS data centers, AWS worked with local community leaders to find and fund a middle ground. The plan led to local municipalities and AWS investing in miles of new pipeline, allowing up to 96% of all spent cooling water from the nearby data centers to be reused in local communities.

4. Power consumption

A recent WSJ article noted that to meet global energy demand and climate aspirations, investments in clean energy would need to grow from around $1.1 trillion this year to $3.4 trillion a year until 2030. The investment would advance technology, transmission, and storage, among other things. "The world isn't investing enough to meet its future energy needs, and uncertainties over policies and demand trajectories create a strong risk of a volatile period ahead for energy markets," the IEA report said. It added that ramping up renewables would require greatly enhanced spending in other sectors, such as mining, to produce and refine the raw materials needed for wind turbines, solar arrays, and utility-scale battery storage.

Although we're not quite there yet, we are making progress. Greener sources have gained market share in the U.S. and Europe, aided by government subsidies and other policies to reduce the use of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Here's something to think about. In 2019, before the onset of the pandemic, the U.S. consumed more renewable energy than coal for the first time since 1885.

Is it time to say so long to fossil fuels? We've begun this process, but it might take a little while. "We're starting the long, long goodbye," states Bob Fryklund, a strategist at IHS Markit.

Regarding power consumption, it's not just about sourcing your energy. So much of it concerns how well you're running facilities. We know that 20% to 40% of a data center's energy use can go towards cooling and ventilation, and this mechanical load is a prime area for optimization through technology. So, when we see protestors calling data centers energy hogs, they're not wrong. However, we're working hard to invest in improving mechanisms internally to require less power.

The power we need to support our digital requirements will likely continue to grow. However, we're seeing massive advancements in solar panels, battery technologies, and even new power generation methods like geothermal, water turbine, and nuclear-powered data centers operating with small modular reactors (SMRs).

With this in mind, I want to make sure the readers of this article take note of something important. Colocations and hyperscalers shouldn't be the only ones in the crosshairs. In fact, colocation vendors and hyperscale facilities are incentivized to run as efficiently as possible. All of this lowers costs and makes the tenants and operators happier.

The real challenge? Legacy data centers. Old colocation buildings that haven't been upgraded in a while and legacy enterprise data centers are usually the least efficient in our industry. New construction does try to do things sustainably. It's not perfect, but the initiative is there. Legacy data centers lack optimization, effective containment, and likely source power from the least expensive options. Consider this, a recent Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study estimated that if 80% of servers in small US data centers were moved over to hyperscale or more efficient colocation facilities, this would result in a 25% drop in energy use.

Can't we all get along?

The irony here is that the protestors in the above photo likely used a digital platform to organize their demonstration. That digital platform lives somewhere in a data center.

The bottom line is that we'll have to find common ground because neither the data centers nor the concerns around them are going anywhere. As a final note, Vlad Galabov had a good point, "One way to achieve both of my earlier points is through education programs where data center operators consider programs for students from local schools and universities or adults who want to reskill. When the community is aware of multiple tangible and intangible data center benefits, the NIMBY proponents will slowly disappear."

He's right. Our industry used to be a well-kept secret. In many cases, this was done by design. With miscommunication and a lack of understanding, these protestors don't know that our industry is trying to impact this world positively. And the feedback from the community is invaluable.

While some facilities don't run very green and aren't the best neighbors, these examples quickly become the exception, not the norm. Our challenge? Not many hear about this, and mainstream media focus on the bad actors. I do offer a strong note of hope. We're trying to educate our communities on what we do through various industry organizations like iMasons, Nomad Futurists, the IDCA, and of course, the amazing Data Center Knowledge and AFCOM community. And in the process, we become educated on the concerns of our neighbors.

If you're unsure about our industry or want to voice your concerns, please know that we're here to listen and we're here to take action.

As a final thought looking ahead, consider this. Data centers used to be the foundation of the Internet. Today, data centers are the foundation of humanity.

It is all of our responsibility to create a better tomorrow.

About the Author(s)

Bill Kleyman

Bill Kleyman has more than 15 years of experience in enterprise technology. He also enjoys writing, blogging, and educating colleagues about tech. His published and referenced work can be found on Data Center Knowledge, AFCOM, ITPro Today, InformationWeek, NetworkComputing, TechTarget, DarkReading, Forbes, CBS Interactive, Slashdot, and more.

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