Past the dense western suburbs of Washington, the vistas widen into open stretches of fields and farmland — a panorama frequently interrupted by massive, windowless buildings housing the high-speed computers that make technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence possible.
These data centers are beginning to dot landscapes across the nation, from Virginia to Oregon. Each has hundreds of servers and routers that send and receive data for everyday tasks like streaming content on mobile devices and handling high-speed financial trades.
“It is the engine that powers the machine,” said Gordon Dolven, director of data center research in the Americas for CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm. “Everything on your phone is stored somewhere within four walls.”
In the past few years, the need for data centers has rapidly increased, fueled by changing work habits during the pandemic and the growth of cloud-based technologies. That means more buildings, more land, more cooling systems and more electricity to support the physical infrastructure that runs 24/7.
Technological advances will only increase demand for data centers, said Noelle Walsh, corporate vice president for cloud innovation and operations at Microsoft. “As a society, we are just getting started,” she added.
But finding enough land to build a data center and sufficient electricity to run it can be a challenge. And developers must address community concerns about these behemoth buildings, which are popping up next to housing developments and straining local electricity providers that have struggled to keep up with the demand.
Northern Virginia is a major hub for data centers, partly because of its proximity to major pieces of physical infrastructure that form the foundation of the internet. Amazon announced plans this year to build multiple data centers in Virginia by 2040, an estimated $35 billion investment.
On the West Coast, a similar hub lies near Silicon Valley. A majority of the world’s internet traffic flows through the sites in these two regions, which function as crucial internet conveyor belts.
Industry analysts say there is growing need to build data centers throughout the rest of the country, part of an effort to bring them closer to customers and take advantage of increasing availability of high-speed networks in rural areas and smaller cities.
The United States had 2,701 data centers in 2022, the largest number in the world, followed by Germany, a distant second, and Britain and China, according to data compiled by Statista. In addition to its two coastal hubs, U.S. data centers are concentrated near major cities, from Atlanta to Seattle.
Large digital companies and the federal government often own and operate their own data centers. Other businesses and governments frequently lease space.
“Anyone who can move into somebody else’s data center will do that,” said Jim Coakley, who develops, owns and manages high-security, high-density data centers. He built his first in Northern Virginia nearly 20 years ago.
Loudoun County, Va., is a key location for data centers, but nearby Prince William County is also experiencing a boom. Elected officials there recently approved a major zoning change for 2,100 acres, paving the way for about 25 million square feet of new data centers.
The zoning decision is not without controversy. Known as the Digital Gateway, the land is close to Manassas National Battlefield Park, whose superintendent has expressed concerns about “potential irreparable harm” to the site. Ann Wheeler, chairman of the board of supervisors in Prince William and a strong backer of the zoning change, lost her re-election bid in the Democratic primary last week after a grass-roots campaign to oust her emphasized her support for more data centers.
Data centers will increasingly be built farther from some of the traditional locations and will move closer to the clients they serve, according to research by Gartner, an I.T. consultancy. But the search for land is not always easy.
“Trying to find qualified land sites that have sufficient power to stand up these facilities — you need 10 times what I built in 2006,” Mr. Coakley said. “They are essentially inhaling massive amounts of energy.”
The demand for data centers is so great that as soon as one is on the drawing board, the space is quickly scooped up, even before it goes to market.
“Every building that gets built gets leased,” said Ryan Goeller, a commercial real estate broker and principal at KLNB, who specializes in Northern Virginia. “There is no vacancy.”
Still, energy demands are complicating growth in some parts of the country. Dominion Energy, Virginia’s principal electric utility used by data centers, has said it is struggling to provide enough power. Some residents fear the needs of data centers in the area, such as the construction of new power lines and substations, could fall to residents to subsidize. Silicon Valley is facing similar challenges, according to a February report by CBRE.
To lessen the demand for energy, the industry is trying to find greater efficiencies, said Arman Shehabi, a staff scientist in the Energy Technologies Area at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“There has been a lot of growth, but a lot of opportunities for efficiency and incentives for efficiency,” he said. And as major players in the data industry strive to become greener in the next decade, the pressure is on.
The growth of artificial intelligence “will require new kinds of efficiency,” Dr. Shehabi said. “Right now it uses a lot of electricity, but it’s not clear if that will continue to be true.”
Electrical needs and availability of skilled electricians drove many decisions in 2022 on where to locate data centers, according to CBRE.
Other environmental concerns also loom. Backup systems for data centers often rely on natural gas and diesel, which can counter efforts toward clean energy. Water needs are also expanding, Dr. Shehabi said.
“We have to be strategic in terms of where we place data centers and consider the water stress level of the area when designing them,” he said.
And developers face resistance from neighbors. Alex Holt, a recently retired first-grade teacher who lives in Gainesville, Va., was surprised when a large wall that marked the beginning of a data center appeared one morning, just a few yards from her townhouse development. A developer had promised to build a town center. “Years went by, and there was nothing there.”
The community was eventually notified that the town center plan was to be replaced by a data center, but Ms. Holt said she did not understand the magnitude of the project at the time. And then, this year, “I looked out my front door and to the left there is this huge wall, and that is when I am like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable,” she said.
But others see an upside to the data centers. They have provided substantial business for the construction industry and, in particular, for electricians.
The jobs pay about $75 an hour and offer a pension plan that, in many industries, is a relic of the past, said Joe Dabbs, a business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26, which represents workers in Washington, D.C., Maryland and much of Virginia. Half the work on data centers, he estimated, is done by electricians.
“We are working seven days a week with multiple shifts,” he said.