At the Potomac, Where DC, the Analog Political National Capital, and VC, the Digital Capital, Meet

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10 Jun 2024

By Jeff Garzik and Ralph Benko

It may seem paradoxical. But sometimes shortages can be a shortcut to abundance.

Economists call that “a forcing function,” explained by the Interaction Design Foundation as

“an aspect of a design that prevents the user from taking an action without consciously considering information relevant to that action. It forces conscious attention upon something ("bringing to conciousness") and thus deliberately disrupts the efficient or automatised performance of a task.”

Followers of the work of Washington Power And Light, a relatively new DC-based policy institute, know that we are committed to abundance to promote the general welfare. In particular, we promote the recognition that abundant, affordable, reliable energy is crucial both to equitable prosperity and to addressing other important social and civic goals.

Among such goals is ecological health, including averting or mitigating the impact of climate change. We consider the data compelling that abundant, affordable, reliable energy is necessary to the provision of national security, food security, water security, factories, jobs, poverty reduction, and equitable economic growth.

The, so to speak, high tension between the economy, which depends on reliable, abundant, affordable energy and (in the eyes of the many who consider the emissions from fossil fuels to be driving climate change) the ecology is manifesting in a vivid way just over the border of Washington, DC.

Recently, a plethora of articles have appeared in the national press about the mushrooming demand for electricity to power the data centers known, colloquially, as “the cloud.” These data centers consume massive amounts of electricity.

The advent of artificial intelligence is dramatically accelerating the demand for electricity for computation. The hundreds of data centers, presumably harboring millions of servers, that power the Internet consume massive amounts of electricity. So much so that the internet needs, now and for the foreseeable future, the resuscitation of coal-fired power plants to generate that power.

Rather than finding this alarming, we are welcoming this as providing a “forcing function,” highlighting how essential reliable, abundant, and affordable power is both to our quality of life… and to improving the quality of life in many ways.

Washington is shadow boxing with TikTok as a supposed existential threat. To quote the favorite epithet of this president who signed the ban: “Malarkey!”

Meanwhile, our politicians have been turning something of a blind eye to the real existential threat that lurks in the magical thinking that we can have abundant, reliable, affordable energy while closing our fossil fuel power generators before they can be replaced by more responsible sources.

Like well-proven nuclear power plants.

“Digital America,” as centered in Northern Virginia, is helping compel our policymakers to face facts. It is playing a forcing function.

We simply cannot yet replace fossil fuels with renewable energy (such as wind and solar) without our electric bills, commercial and residential, in many locales, soaring.

And even running the risk of rolling blackouts.

We cannot impose renewables without choking off America’s equitable prosperity. Doubt it? Consider how Germany’s infatuation with renewables degraded it from being one of the best economies in the world to the worst performing major economy.

Renewable energy is reliable and affordable in some places. But not in places with minimal sunshine and wind. Renewables demonstrably cannot power a prosperous American economy from sea to shining sea.

This is manifesting right in Washington’s own backyard.

Dominion Energy reports that about 70% of the internet traffic of the world streams through data centers located in that part of Virginia across the Potomac River from DC, that geography which used to be part of DC.

It’s almost as if there’s a shadow capital of the digital world adjacent to the official capital of the analog world, the District of Columbia. These data centers, almost invisibly, require lots and lots of electricity. “Dominion Energy currently provides electricity to over 12 million square feet of commissioned data center space. This number is poised to grow significantly thanks to state and local incentives, extensive electric and fiber infrastructure, and a strong workforce.”

How much electricity do the data centers consume? Boston Consulting Group reportedly estimates such data centers consume 2.5% of all the electricity America consumes… and that is expected to triple to 7.5%, by the end of the decade.

Some estimates of power consumption by data centers are even higher. Some credible sources say that the internet now uses 10% of world energy and is expected, before factoring in AI, to rise to 20% by 2025.

And rising fast.

That consummate nerdy authority, The IEEE Spectrum, recently reported that:

SCIENTISTS HAVE PREDICTED that by 2040, almost 50 percent of the world’s electric power will be used in computing. What’s more, this projection was made before the sudden explosion of generative AI. The amount of computing resources used to train the largest AI models has been doubling roughly every 6 months for more than the past decade. At this rate, by 2030 training a single artificial-intelligence model would take one hundred times as much computing resources as the combined annual resources of the current top ten supercomputers. Simply put, computing will require colossal amounts of power, soon exceeding what our planet can provide.”

“… computing will require colossal amounts of power, soon exceeding what our planet can provide…?”

This self-evidently is a much bigger deal than TikTok being too entertaining for our young’uns own good.

Now here, on the DC/analogue side of the Potomac, we see the production (and squandering) of vast amounts of political power. On the digital side of the Potomac, northern Virginia (which long ago used to be part of DC), we see the consumption (and productive application) of vast amounts of electric power.

As an aside… “Washington, DC?”

Libertarians! Rejoice.

And despair!

Libertarians have been looking to diminish or even abolish Washington since before Ayn Rand dispatched John Galt to Ouray, Colorado. Too late.

Washington was abolished as a legal entity in 1871 by the Organic Act abolishing the cities of Washington and Georgetown, replacing those entities with a municipality called the District of Columbia. The seat of local government is called “the District Building,” not Washington DC City Hall.

Thus, a specter is haunting America. It’s the ghost of the City of Washington!

As one of our old bosses, President Reagan, jovially observed in his most famous pre-presidential speech, A Time for Choosing (1964), “Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth.”

Washington, DC no longer legally exists. Yet we hear its name on the news many times a day.

Sure enough, the Organic Act, while abolishing the city of Washington as a legal entity, also stated, “that portion of said District included within the present limits of the city of Washington shall continue to be known as the city of Washington…”

“To be known as,” even though it ceased to exist? The shade of President Reagan perched in Heaven must be chuckling. Or … spinning in his grave.

Many of those hundreds of data centers are within the area ceded back to Virginia in 1847. And there in that legacy space that used to be part of DC resides… the bulk of the data centers for the Internet.

Moreover, as one of us has observed at Hackernoon, there is a real C.P. Snow “Two Cultures” problem between the denizens of the two sides of the Potomac River (over which George Washington never threw a silver dollar).

As Amy Zegart and Kevin Childs wrote in The Atlantic, six years ago:

“It’s hard to overstate just how foreign the worlds of Washington and Silicon Valley have become to each other. At the exact moment that great-power conflict is making a comeback and harnessing technology is the key to victory, Silicon Valley and Washington are experiencing a ‘policy makers are from Mars, tech leaders are from Venus’ moment, with both sides unable to trust or understand each other. Even the dress codes are vexing and perplexing. In the tech industry, adults dress like college kids. Inside the Beltway, college kids dress like adults.”

This cannot go on. We cited Stein’s Law (“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”) in our previous HackerNoon column.

And now … chickens are coming home to roost. Those Northern Virginia data centers through which most of the world’s internet flows are such power players that the, so to speak, Powers-That-Be are compelled to restore coal-fired electrical generators to supply the needed electricity.

Almost Heaven, West Virginia!

Conjoining servers -- the most modern, prestigious, and viewed-as-cleanest tech, the digital -- with one of the oldest, déclassé, and considered-dirtiest techs, coal-fired generators, is an odd juxtaposition.

That said, there it is. So, let’s face facts.

As the Washington Post recently reported:

“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… 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.

“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.

The national capital, which tends to be an agent of the status quo, is now beginning to discover, right in its own backyard, the deleterious impact of its diktats on the capital of innovation, the digital world.

Yes, there will be a legitimate role for renewables to play… in some sunny and windy locales. That said, the free market, not virtue-signaling politicians subsidizing their pet sectors, is the better decision-maker.

To paraphrase Churchill describing democracy, free markets are the worst way of finding out how to generate abundant, affordable, reliable energy with its attendant prosperity and, thus, political sustainability, except for every other system that has been tried.

Hence, data centers are performing a forcing function for the world economy. All to the good.

To see for yourself, just observe the paradox now growing vivid in northern Virginia. There, in the centers through which 70% of the data of the Internet flows, the energy providers are lighting up coal to power and propel these very words from our fingertips to HackerNoon, to you.

There are better ways to generate affordable, abundant, reliable power to power civilization without degrading the environment. Data centers, and, no, A, are performing the forcing function to accelerate our discovery of how to have the best of both worlds.


Jeff Garzik serves as the founder and chairman of the policy institute Washington Power and Light. Before co-founding Bloq for which he serves as CEO, he spent five years as a Bitcoin core developer and ten years at Red Hat. His work with the Linux kernel is now found in every Android phone and data center running Linux today.

Ralph Benko serves as co-founder and general counsel to Washington Power and Light. He is the co-founder and general counsel for F1R3FLY.io and has worked in or with 3 White Houses, two executive branch agencies, and the Congress, as well as many political and policy institutes. He is an award-winning columnist.