Virginia's electricity demand will soar over the next few years, as data center building continues, and electric vehicles replace traditional ones, according to a forecast.

Renewable energy in the state will struggle to keep up, as electricity demand will go up by 30 to 38 percent by 2035, and by 78 percent by 2050, says a report the University of Virginia’s Energy Transition Initiative. Almost all of that increase is due to data centers and electric vehicles, the report says.

Driving electricity demand

"Most electricity use sectors in Virginia are not growing," says the report by William Shobe, director of the initiative. "Commercial and industrial demand for electricity in Virginia have both been falling for several years, and we can expect this to continue for some time. Residential sales are growing very slowly due to slower population growth and improved energy efficiency. The one growing sector of electricity demand in Virginia is sales to data centers. Data center use is growing nationally, and Virginia is a particularly attractive location for data center services. So data center electricity use is growing faster here than in most other states."

It's hard to predict when (or if?) the current surge in data center demand will tail off, but Shobe's report looked at growth of 71 percent, 56 percent, and 22 percent before 2050, most of it due to data centers.

“Virginia policymakers have decided to make our electricity supply greener, and to do that we have to build a substantial amount of energy sources over the next few years. If we’re going to do that, we have to be prepared, and we have to bring all the information together to allow us to do that in a cost-effective way,” Shobe told the Virginia Mercury.

Northern Virginia is the world's leading data center hub, and has been reported to be as large as the next four US markets (Dallas, Silicon Valley, Chicago, and Phoenix) put together.

Will Cleveland, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the State Corporation Commission that data center usage was unpredictable: “By 2050 we have no idea what the options are going to be for behind-the-meter generation and storage. We have no idea how efficient the data centers are going to become or whether they’re going to start to operate with their own on-site solar."

Large data center operators are helping to stimulate renewable energy production by signing power purchase agreements with providers which fund new solar and wind energy. For instance earlier this week, Google signed a 500MW deal with AES Energy, which should ensure that 90 percent of the energy consumed by its two Virginia data centers will come from renewable sources, on an hourly metered basis.