CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — A helicopter hovers over the Gee family farm, the noisy rattle echoing inside their home in this rural part of West Virginia. It’s holding surveyors who are eyeing space for yet another power line next to the property — a line that will take electricity generated from coal plants in the state to address a drain on power driven by the world’s internet hub in Northern Virginia 35 miles away.

There, massive data centers with computers processing nearly 70 percent of global digital traffic are gobbling up electricity at a rate officials overseeing the power grid say is unsustainable unless two things happen: Several hundred miles of new transmission lines must be built, slicing through neighborhoods and farms in Virginia and three neighboring states. And antiquated coal-powered electricity plants that had been scheduled to go offline will need to keep running to fuel the increasing need for more power, undermining clean energy goals.

“It’s not right,” said Mary Gee, whose property already abuts two power lines that serve as conduits for electricity flowing toward the biggest concentration of data centers — in Loudoun County, home to what’s known as Data Center Alley. “These power lines? They’re not for me and my family. I didn’t vote on this. And the data centers? That’s not in West Virginia. That’s a whole different state.”

Richard Gee and his wife, Mary, walk along their property with daughters Isabella, 14, and Maria, 16, with transmission lines that abut their land shown behind them in Charles Town, W.Va., in January. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Solar panels in Charles Town are part of an effort to bring more green energy to the struggling power grid. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
An orange marker placed by the city is seen on the property of the Gee family. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Horses pasture under transmission lines in Charles Town. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The $5.2 billion effort has fueled a backlash against data centers through the region, prompting officials in Virginia to begin studying the deeper impacts of an industry they’ve long cultivated for the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue it brings to their communities.

Critics say it will force residents near the coal plants to continue living with toxic pollution, ironically to help a state — Virginia — that has fully embraced clean energy. And utility ratepayers in the affected areas will be forced to pay for the plan in the form of higher bills, those critics say.

But PJM Interconnection, the regional grid operator, says the plan is necessary to maintain grid reliability amid a wave of fossil fuel plant closures in recent years, prompted by the nation’s transition to cleaner power.

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A map depicting the proposed transmission line expansion in West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia

Power lines will be built across four states in a $5.2 billion effort that, relying on coal plants that were meant to be shuttered, is designed to keep the electric grid from failing amid spiking energy demands.

Focus on Loudoun/Waterford

Cutting through farms and neighborhoods, the plan converges on Northern Virginia, where a growing data center industry will need enough extra energy to power 6 million homes by 2030.

With not enough of those green energy facilities connected to the grid yet, enough coal and natural gas energy to power 32 million homes is expected to be lost by 2030 at a time when the demand from the growing data center industry, electric vehicles and other new technology is on the rise, PJM says.

“The system is in a major transition right now, and it’s going to continue to evolve,” Ken Seiler, PJM’s senior vice president in charge of planning, said in a December stakeholders’ meeting about the effort to buy time for green energy to catch up. “And we’ll look for opportunities to do everything we can to keep the lights on as it goes through this transition.”

A need for power

Data centers that house thousands of computer servers and the cooling equipment needed for them to run have been multiplying in Northern Virginia since the late 1990s, spreading from the industry’s historic base in Loudoun County to neighboring Prince William County and, recently, across the Potomac River into Maryland. There are nearly 300 data centers now in Virginia.

With Amazon Web Services pursuing a $35 billion data center expansion in Virginia, rural portions of the state are the industry’s newest target for development.

The growth means big revenue for the localities that host the football-field-size buildings. Loudoun collects $600 million in annual taxes on the computer equipment inside the buildings, making it easier to fund schools and other services. Prince William, the second-largest market, collects $100 million per year.

An Amazon Web Services data center is located within about 50 feet of some residential homes in the Loudoun Meadows neighborhood in Ashburn, Va. A Microsoft data center is under construction at top right. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
An Amazon Web Services data center, top center, has been built near residential neighborhoods in Manassas, Va. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

But data centers also consume massive amounts of energy.

One data center can require 50 times the electricity of a typical office building, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Multiple-building data center complexes, which have become the norm, require as much as 14 to 20 times that amount.

The demand has strained utility companies, to the point where Dominion Energy in Virginia briefly warned in 2022 that it may not be able to keep up with the pace of the industry’s growth.

The utility — which has since accelerated plans for new power lines and substations to boost its electrical output — predicts that by 2035 the industry in Virginia will require 11,000 megawatts, nearly quadruple what it needed in 2022, or enough to power 8.8 million homes.

The smaller Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative recently told PJM that the more than 50 data centers it serves account for 59 percent of its energy demand. It expects to need to serve about 110 more data centers by July 2028.

Meanwhile, the amount of energy available is not growing quickly enough to meet that future demand. Coal plants have scaled down production or shut down altogether as the market transitions to green energy, hastened by laws in Maryland and Virginia mandating net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 and, for several other states in the region, by 2050.

Dominion is developing a 2,600-megawatt wind farm off Virginia Beach — the largest such project in U.S. waters — and the company recently gained state approval to build four solar projects.

But those projects won’t be ready in time to absorb the projected gap in available energy. Opponents of PJM’s plan say it wouldn’t be necessary if more green energy had been connected to the grid faster, pointing to projects that were caught up in bureaucratic delays for five years or longer before they were connected.

A PJM spokesperson said the organization has recently sped up its approval process and is encouraging utility companies and federal and state officials to better incorporate renewable energy.

About 40,000 megawatts of green energy projects have been cleared for construction but are not being built because of issues related to financing or siting, the PJM spokesperson said.

Once more renewable energy is available, some of the power lines being built to address the energy gap may no longer be needed as the coal plants ultimately shut down, clean energy advocates say — though utility companies contend the extra capacity brought by the lines will always be useful.

“Their planning is just about maintaining the status quo,” Tom Rutigliano, a senior advocate for clean energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said about PJM. “They do nothing proactive about really trying to get a handle on the future and get ready for it.”

‘Holding on tight’ to coal

The smoke from two coal plants near West Virginia’s border with Pennsylvania billows over the city of Morgantown, adding a brownish tint to the air.

Nearby sits the 502 Junction substation, connected to those plants and a third one about 43 miles away via existing power lines, which will serve as a terminus for a western prong of the PJM plan for new lines that will extend to another substation in Frederick, Md., then south into Northern Virginia.

The 502 Junction substation, to which transmission lines are connected, in Mount Morris, Pa. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
A pile of coal is seen at the Longview power station in Maidsville, W.Va., in February. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
The Longview, left, and the Fort Martin power stations in Maidsville, W.Va. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The owner of one of the Morgantown-area plants, Longview LLC, recently emerged from bankruptcy. After a restructuring, the facility is fully functioning, utilizing a solar farm to supplement its coal energy output.

The other two plants belong to the Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp. utility, which had plans to significantly scale down operations there to meet a company goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a third over the next six years.

The FirstEnergy plants are among the state’s worst polluters, said Jim Kotcon, a West Virginia University plant pathology professor who oversees conservation efforts at the Sierra Club’s West Virginia chapter.

The Harrison plant pumped out a combined 12 million tons of coal pollutants like sulfur and nitrous oxides in 2023, more than any other fossil fuel plant in the state, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. The Fort Martin plant, which has been operating since the late 1960s, emitted the state’s highest levels of nitrous oxides in 2023, at 5,240 tons.

After PJM tapped the company to build a 36-mile-long portion of the planned power lines for $392 million, FirstEnergy announced in February that the company is abandoning a 2030 goal to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions because the two plants are crucial to maintaining grid reliability.

The news has sent FirstEnergy’s stock price up by 4 percent, to about $37 a share this week, and was greeted with jubilation by West Virginia’s coal industry.

(Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

“We welcome this, without question, because it will increase the life of these plants and hundreds of thousands of mining jobs,” said Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. “We’re holding on tight to our coal plants.”

Since 2008, annual coal production in West Virginia has dipped by nearly half, to about 82 million tons, though the industry — which contributes about $5.5 billion to the state’s economy — has rebounded some due to an export market to Europe and Asia, Hamilton said.

Hamilton said his association will lobby hard for FirstEnergy’s portion of the PJM plan to gain state approval. The company said it will submit its application for its power line routes in mid-2025.

More than 200 miles to the east in Maryland, environmental groups and ratepayer advocates are fighting an effort by PJM to extend the life of two more coal plants — Brandon Shores and Herbert A. Wagner — just outside of Baltimore, which were slated to close by June 2025.

The Brandon Shores Power Plant, located in Anne Arundel County outside of Baltimore. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Darrell Abed, left, president of the board of directors for the Stoney Beach condo association, speaks with resident John Garofolo near the Herbert A. Wagner Generating Station. “We’re concerned about the air we’re breathing here,” Garofolo says. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

PJM asked the plants’ owner, Texas-based Talen Energy Corp., to keep them running through 2028 — with the yet-to-be determined cost of doing so passed on to ratepayers.

That would mean amending a 2018 federal court consent decree, in which Talen agreed to stop burning coal to settle a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club over Clean Water Act violations. The Sierra Club has rejected PJM’s calls to do so.

“We need a proactive plan that is consistent with the state’s clean energy goals,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter, which has proposed an alternative plan to build a battery storage facility at the Brandon Shores site that would cut the time needed for the plants to operate.

A PJM spokesperson said the organization believes that such a facility wouldn’t provide enough reliable power and is not ruling out seeking a federal emergency order to keep the coal plants running.

With the matter still unresolved, nearby residents say they are anxious to see them closed.

“It’s been really challenging,” said John Garofolo, who lives in the Stoney Beach neighborhood community of townhouses and condominiums, where coal dust drifts into the neighborhood pool when the facilities are running. “We’re concerned about the air we’re breathing here.”

Sounding alarms

Keryn Newman, a Charles Town activist, has been sounding alarms in the small neighborhoods and farm communities along the path of the proposed power lines in West Virginia.

Newman, who in the late 2000s waged a successful campaign to stop a plan for a 765-kilovolt line extending through the area into Maryland before the data center boom, sees the battle in terms of the more affordable, quieter lifestyle she and her neighbors cherish.

Transmission lines run by Pam Gearhart’s property in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Pam Gearhart, left, speaks with activist Keryn Newman as she explains how close the transmission lines are to her Harpers Ferry property. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
A bird flies near transmission lines in Charles Town, W.Va. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Solar panels lined up in Charles Town. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Because FirstEnergy prohibits any structure from interfering with a power line, building a new line along the right of way — which would be expanded to make room for the third line — would mean altering the character of residents’ properties, Newman said.

“It gobbles up space for play equipment for your kid, a pool or a barn,” she said. “And a well or septic system can’t be in the right of way.”

A FirstEnergy spokesperson said the company would compensate property owners for any land needed, with eminent domain proceedings a last resort if those property owners are unwilling to sell.

Some have accepted that more power lines will come through and seem open to selling to FirstEnergy and moving away.

Robin Huyett Thomas reaches out to her horse, Lydia, on her property in Charles Town. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Pam and Gary Gearhart fought alongside Newman against the defeated 765-kilovolt line, which would have forced them to move a septic system near FirstEnergy’s easement. But when Newman showed up recently to their Harpers Ferry-area neighborhood to discuss the new PJM plan, the couple appeared unwilling to fight again.

Next door, another family had already decided to leave, the couple said, and was in the midst of loading furniture into a truck when Newman showed up.

“They’re just going to keep okaying data centers; there’s money in those things,” Pam Gearhart said about local governments in Virginia benefiting from the tax revenue. “Until they run out of land down there.”

In Loudoun County, where the data center industry’s encroachment into neighborhoods has fostered resentment, community groups are fighting a portion of the PJM plan that would build power lines through the mostly rural communities of western Loudoun.

The lines would damage the views offered by surrounding wineries and farms that contribute to Loudoun’s $4 billion tourism industry, those groups say.

Bill Hatch owns a winery that sits near the path of where PJM suggested one high-voltage line could go, though that route is still under review.

“This is going to be a scar for a long time,” Hatch said.

Reconsidering the benefits

Amid the backlash, local and state officials are reconsidering the data center industry’s benefits.

The Virginia General Assembly has launched a study that, among other things, will look at how the industry’s growth may affect energy resources and utility rates for state residents.

But that study has held up efforts to regulate the industry sooner, frustrating activists.

“We should not be subsidizing this industry for another minute, let alone another year,” Julie Bolthouse, director of land use at the Piedmont Environmental Council, chided a Senate committee that voted in February to table a bill that would force data center companies to pay more for new transmission lines.

Loudoun is moving to restrict where in the county data centers can be built. Up until recently, data centers have been allowed to be built without special approvals wherever office buildings are allowed.

“They’re great neighbors, great taxes, all that sort of thing,” Phyllis Randall (D), chair of the county board, said about the industry before a February vote to set that plan in motion. “But somehow, someway, it started to get away from us.”

“These power lines? They’re not for me and my family. … And the data centers? That’s not in West Virginia. That’s a whole different state,” says Mary Gee, right, with daughter Maria. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

But such action will do little to stem the worries of people like Mary and Richard Gee.

As it is, the two lines near their property produce an electromagnetic field strong enough to charge a garden fence with a light current of electricity, the couple said. When helicopters show up to survey the land for a third line, the family’s dog, Peaches, who is prone to seizures, goes into a barking frenzy.

An artist who focuses on natural landscapes, Mary Gee planned to convert the barn that sits in the shadow of a power line tower to a studio. That now seems unlikely, she said.

Lately, her paintings have reflected her frustration. One picture shows birds with beaks wrapped shut by transmission line. Another has a colorful scene of the rural Charles Town area severed by a smoky black and gray landscape of steel towers and a coal plant.

“It feels like harassment,” Gee said. “But there’s no one we can call for help.”

Mary Gee’s artwork depicts birds caught in power lines near her Charles Town farm. (Antonio Olivo/The Washington Post)
correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that Prince William County receives $400 million annually in taxes on the computer equipment inside data centers. It receives $100 million annually. In addition, the article incorrectly stated that two FirstEnergy plants in West Virginia have been equipped with carbon-capturing technology. They do not have such technology in place, The article has been corrected.

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