Americans on alert as noisy data centres near their neighbourhoods

A data centre complex in Prince William County, Virginia, sits near the Great Oak community, seen in October 2022. — Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

WASHINGTON: When a global data centre company moved into an old solar panel factory just outside Portland, Oregon, three years ago, it was surrounded by farmland and open space.

Today, it is encircled by newly built data centres – vast warehouses accommodating the digital storage, applications and processing that power swathes of the Internet.

“Now, there are four data centre providers literally building across the street,” Steven Lim, a senior vice-president with NTT Global Data Centers, said of the company’s complex in Hillsboro.

The town is far from the data centre hubs of southern California and northern Virginia, but it is part of a fast-moving, nationwide expansion driven by the quest for cheaper land and running costs that is reaching smaller cities.

Besides lower costs, the shift toward smaller, more local data centres addresses demand gaps among users as more people work from home, according to a report last year by the KPMG consultancy.

Being near to users can cut down on lag, for example in online gaming applications or sensitive future uses, a goal that is also fueling a parallel push deeper into dense urban areas such as Los Angeles.

But as data centre operators eye their cities, local officials are scrambling to find ways to balance the potential revenue gains with community concerns over land use, noise, and the added drain on water and power supplies.

“I don’t think America knew what data centres were going to evolve into,” said Kevin Mayo, planning administrator in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, which initially welcomed the industry but has since raised questions about the boom.

As Chandler’s roughly 10 data centres switched from water to electricity – and diesel backups – to cool their operations, noise complaints from people living nearby started to increase, Mayo said.

Now, the city council has put the brakes on new operations, as Mayo’s office works to update regulations on noise control and other issues.

“Data centres are evolving, and our approach and land use regulations regarding them are evolving with them,” Mayo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Zoom calls, social media

The United States was home to about 2,600 data centres last year – a third of the global total, according to figures cited by the US International Trade Commission, amid a global market set to nearly double from 2020 to US$90bil (RM426.42bil) by mid-decade.

Data centre growth is underpinned by how the pandemic supercharged online and especially video activity, triggering a surge in Zoom calls, photo-sharing and social media use.

“Everything we do is creating a greater need for data centres – they are this unseen thing, and between your phone and videoconferencing, all of it is creating greater and greater need for the expansion of what we’re doing,” said Lim.

The boom has brought significant local investment and a major new source of tax revenue in data centre hotspots.

In Virginia, the centres accounted for 62% of all new investment last year, supporting 45,000 jobs and creating more than US$15bil (RM71.07bil) in economic output, according to the Northern Virginia Technology Council, a trade group.

Yet these operations come with significant costs: Together, data centres use about 2% of the nation’s electricity, according to the Energy Department, while a typical facility sucks in millions of gallons of water for cooling servers per year.

Noisy neighbours

For local communities, the downside can be more immediate.

In the Great Oak community in Prince William County, Virginia, a data centre in a new complex operated by Amazon Web Services lies just 600 feet (180 meters) from homes and is proving a noisy neighbour, said Dale Browne, president of the local homeowners’ association.

While testing since July has found the centre regularly breaks a county noise ordinance, that decades-old rule exempts cooling and heating systems because it was written with residential units in mind, Browne said.

“People can’t use their backyards,” he said, adding that local residents were now meeting regularly with the company in search of a solution.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) said it was “devoting considerable engineering and resources to identify sound reduction measures”, including installing initial shrouds around the cooling systems.

“Addressing our neighbours’ noise concerns in Prince William County is a priority for us,” Tim Hall, AWS vice president of Americas infrastructure operations, said in a statement, adding that the company always strives to reduce energy and water use.

Prince William is currently debating a major expansion in the number of data centres it would allow, with a vote among county officials set for Nov 1.

Yet opposition to further development is also growing among county residents.

John W. Lyver, a retired Nasa spaceflight safety manager, has done acoustic analyses on proposed sites in the county, estimating that one neighbourhood would see noise levels of 73 decibels – similar to living next to a busy highway. A school would see even higher levels.

The county is reviewing its noise ordinance to see if changes are needed, said Rachel Johnson, Prince William’s acting communications director.

Acknowledging the need for more data centres to be built, Browne said it was about striking the right balance.

“We need to find a place to put them where they get the power and water... that they need, but also to coexist with the neighbourhoods.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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