Bloomberg Businessweek) — For a little while earlier this year, it seemed as though 87-year-old Rosie Thomas and her neighbors in the small town of Gainesville, Va., had beaten Amazon. Virginia’s largest utility, Dominion Energy Inc., had planned to run an aboveground power line straight through a Civil War battlefield—and Thomas’s property—to reach a nearby data center run by an Amazon.com Inc. subsidiary. After three years of petitions and protests in front of the gated data center, skirmishes punctuated by barking dogs and shooing police, Dominion agreed to bury that part of the line along a nearby highway, at an estimated cost of $172 million.
Within a month, however, the utility and state legislators had passed on the cost to Thomas and her fellow Virginians. The state’s House of Delegates approved Dominion’s proposal to raise the money needed for the Amazon line with an as-yet-unannounced monthly fee. “Lord, have mercy,” Thomas said when a neighbor gave her the news this spring in the gravel driveway of her one-story clapboard home, where she was watching the metal disk spin inside the electricity meter on the side of the house. She was already struggling to pay her monthly $170. Leaning forgotten against Thomas’s mailbox was an old protest sign that read “UNPLUG Amazon Extension Cord.” It no longer felt like a trophy.
This sort of thing is becoming a pattern. Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing business, is its fastest-growing and most profitable division, but it comes with a lot of upfront infrastructure costs and ongoing expenses, the biggest of which is electricity. Over the past two years, Amazon has almost doubled the size of its physical footprint worldwide, to 254 million square feet, including dozens of new data centers with vast fields of servers running 24/7. In at least two states, it’s also negotiated with utilities and politicians to stick other people with the bills, piling untold millions of dollars on top of the estimated $1.2 billion in state and municipal tax incentives the company has received over the past decade.
Other companies, including Google and Tesla Inc., have taken advantage of the power industry’s hunger for growth and the relative secrecy that followed its 1990s deregulation in dozens of states. But Amazon stands out for its success in offloading its power costs and also because it dominates America’s cloud business, which has gone from nonexistent to using 2 percent of U.S. electricity in about a decade. “Amazon had a huge advantage, because there weren’t a lot of other sectors growing in the electricity market,” says Neal Elliott, senior director of research at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a green lobbying group. The company has also ratcheted up the secrecy around who’s paying for electricity, says environmental advocate Greenpeace, which calls Amazon the single biggest obstacle to industry transparency. Amazon declined to comment for this story.