Data centres proliferating across Oregon are projected to consume substantially more electricity than initially anticipated by regional utilities and power planners, as revealed by three recent forecasts this summer. This surge in demand is adding pressure to the Northwest electrical grid and raising questions about Oregon’s ability to fulfil its ambitious clean energy goals established just two years ago.
Portland General Electric sharply increased its forecast for regional power demand in July, citing “rapid industrial growth and growing demand of data centres.” The utility predicts electricity demand in the Portland area will be at least 13% higher in 2030 than what PGE projected just last spring.
The Bonneville Power Administration now expects that, by 2041, data centers’ electricity demands in Oregon and Washington will grow by two-and-a-half times, drawing 2,715 average megawatts. That’s enough to power a third of all the homes in those two states today.
Massoud Jourabchi, economist with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, issued a similar forecast last month but warned data centers’ power needs might grow even faster than anticipated.
“If we grow at this rate, we are dealing with significant, and I underline significant, increase in loads,” Jourabchi told regional power planners. “If you are not sober at this point, this must be some strong stuff that you’re using.”
Data centres are already among the Northwest’s largest consumers of electricity. Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google all operate huge data centres in central and eastern Oregon, while a multitude of data hosting companies have built a major cluster of large facilities in Hillsboro.
“We’re going to be intensely competing over pretty finite renewable resources over the next 15 to 20 years. That’s a very serious risk to our clean energy goals,” said Joshua Basofin of Climate Solutions Oregon.
Tax policy will be a key determinant of just how much power Northwest data centres will use in the coming years, according to Grant Forsyth, chief economist for Avista Utilities in Spokane.
“One of the issues that’s going to drive, I think, where these data centres locate, are the tax preferences that states offer them,” Forsyth said at the power council’s July meeting in Portland. “To what extent these tax preferences start to either increase or get rolled back in the future may impact, ultimately, the accumulation of (power) load that we see.”
Data centres aren’t going anywhere, according to Nicole Hughes, the executive director of Renewable Northwest, a Portland organisation supported by the clean-power industry. As a society, she said, we are too dependent on our smartphones and social media to wean ourselves off the technologies data centres enable.
“We either have to accommodate that by providing the electricity to support it or decide to do something different,” Hughes said.
While she maintains Oregon is on a path toward meeting its 2030 clean energy targets, Hughes said the way forward is vague beyond that.
So she suggests Oregon consider big changes, including revamping its land-use laws, to make room for more clean energy and transmission to get that power to where it’s needed.
“We don’t have a plan for 2040, and so we need to start planning today for what that looks like,” Hughes said. “It’s going to require more infrastructure, it’s going to require a regional market, it’s going to require building a lot of regional generation.”