Data centers, the backbone of the digital economy, face water shortages and climate risks

Data centers are popping up all over the world to handle the torrent of information from the growing web of devices that are ingrained in people’s lives and economies. Managing the explosion of digital information is big business. It also comes with hidden environmental costs.

For years, companies that operate data centers have faced scrutiny over the vast amounts of power they use to store and move digital information such as email and video. Now, the US public is starting to take note of the water many facilities require to keep them from overheating. Similar to cooling systems in large office buildings, water often evaporates in data center cooling towers, leaving behind a salty wastewater known as blowdown.

Dependence on water poses an increasing risk to data centers as climate change exacerbates droughts while soaring computing needs. About 20 percent of U.S. data centers are under moderate to high stress from drought and other factors, according to a paper co-authored last year by Arman Shehabi, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Already dependent on the water realm.

However, as interest in the issue is still limited, relatively few companies are willing to speak publicly on the issue. Sustainalytics, which assesses risks related to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, recently examined 122 companies that operate data centers and found that they disclosed information about their plans to manage water-related risks. announced that only 16% were found to

“The reason for the lack of transparency is simply that [is] I think most companies don’t have a good story to tell here,” says Kyle Myers, vice president of data center company CyrusOne.

The challenge, Myers said, comes down to the fundamental trade-offs companies face to keep their data centers cool. They can consume less water and use more electricity.Or they can consume less energy and consume more water.

“Water is very cheap,” Myers says. “So people make an economic decision that it makes sense to consume water.”

In addition to their own cooling needs, data centers rely on power plants, which often require a lot of water to operate.

pushback has already occurred

According to the U.S. International Trade Commission’s 2021 report, there are approximately 2,600 data centers in the United States, many of which are concentrated in Dallas, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Los Angeles area.

Overall, medium-sized data centers consume about 300,000 gallons of water per day, or the equivalent of about 1,000 US homes, said Shehabi of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Their direct on-site consumption ranks data centers among the top 10 water users in America’s industrial and commercial sectors.

Water is “front and center” [the industry’s] It’s definitely a radar,” says Todd Reeve, CEO of Business for Water Stewardship, which works with businesses on water issues.

Recently, some data center companies have faced opposition from communities and water conservationists. In 2015, the City of Chandler, Arizona, passed an ordinance that allows officials to decline requests for new water uses if they are inconsistent with the city’s economic development plans. And in 2019, Google agreed to limit its use of groundwater in South Carolina after two years of fighting with local groups who raised concerns that the aquifer was drying up.

“Companies are developing tactics and strategies, and in some cases changing their ideas and plans about where they operate and where they build data centers, mainly because of emerging water challenges,” Reeve said. says. But many companies won’t talk about their activities, he said. [and] Our knowledge of water stress is evolving rapidly. “

Companies say they are looking for solutions

The effects of the worsening drought are felt across the global economy. Europe lacks rivers that serve as important trade routes. Factories in China have been closed to save water and electricity. And American industries that depend on water from the Colorado River could run out of supplies during decades of drought.

“Which sectors get water? How [is] Do you prefer water? So I believe these will be increasingly important considerations in the future,” said Kata Molnar, water expert at Sustainalytics.

Some of the world’s largest technology companies are among the most vocal voices in the data center industry.

Google, Microsoft and Facebook’s parent company Meta all say they will replenish more water than they consume by 2030. Approaches being considered include working with local water utilities, improving recycling of water used in data centers, and water-saving cooling methods.

“Minimizing water use, making water data transparent, and restoring water in areas of high water stress are key pillars of our water stewardship program,” Mehta said in a statement. The company says most of its data centers use outside air for cooling to reduce water consumption.

Some experts say companies can reduce their environmental footprint not only by using new technologies, but also by building data centers in water-rich locations. But for now, real estate decisions seem to be driven largely by where the client is.

CyrusOne’s Myers said: “But I don’t think we’re getting any closer to a world that we’re trying to establish in areas with no natural environment. [business] Advantageous for data centers. “

As long as that’s the case, the industry will have to innovate how to get out of an ever-worsening problem. “Water will be king,” says Myers, in the next decade.

Business for Water Stewardship’s Reeve argues that companies are preparing accordingly, although often behind the scenes.

“I think there’s more to it than meets the eye,” Reeve says. “There are a lot of innovations out there that have not been fully disclosed or made available to the public.”

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