Electricity demand in the U.S. is rising for the first time in decades, straining the electrical grid and threatening to torpedo President Biden’s climate goals, the New York Times reports. Dramatic increases in energy efficiency beginning in the early 2000s flattened electricity demand even as the economy and electronics demand continued to grow. However, the proliferation of electricity-gobbling artificial intelligence and the rapid construction of data centers built to meet AI’s computing power needs are keeping coal-fired power plants online past their scheduled retirement dates and pushing utilities to build new methane gas-fired power plants.

The resurgence of manufacturing and the rise of EVs are also contributing to increased demand, but the explosion of computing power demands is an acute threat to grid stability. At least 75 data centers have been built in Northern Virginia’s “Data Center Alley” in the last five years, and Dominion Energy estimates the region’s data center capacity could double in the next five. Critics argue Dominion and other regulated utilities have financial incentives to build new gas plants instead of improving efficiency and integrating renewables.

Renewables and Transmission Needed

It can take at least five years to connect renewable energy sources to the grid (and double that for long-distance power lines) but data centers can be built in just one year. “To see that come on all of the sudden, even for a system as big as ours, that’s significant,” Ken Seiler, head of system planning for PJM, told the Times.

Biden has pledged to cut U.S. climate pollution in half by 2035 and generate all of the country’s electricity from climate pollution-free sources by 2035.

“I can’t recall the last time I was so alarmed about the country’s energy trajectory,” Tyler Norris, a power systems expert and former solar developer now pursuing a PhD at Duke, told the Times. “It is entirely feasible to meet growing electricity demand without so much gas, but it requires regulators to challenge the utilities and push for less-traditional solutions.” (New York Times $)