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Amazon Isn’t Paying Its Electric Bills. You Might Be

The company’s rate discounts have pushed up utility costs for everyone else.

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Illustration: Mitch Blunt for 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.