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Data centers are springing up around the world to handle the torrent of information from the growing network of devices embedded in people’s lives and the economy. Managing that torrent of digital information is big business. It also comes with hidden environmental costs.
For years, companies that operate data centers have faced scrutiny for the vast amounts of electricity they use to store and move digital information like email and video. Now, the US public is beginning to realize the many water fixtures that are required to prevent overheating. Like the cooling systems in large office buildings, water often evaporates in data center cooling towers, leaving behind salty wastewater known as blowdown that must be treated by utilities local.
That reliance on water poses a growing risk to data centers, as computing needs skyrocket at the same time climate change exacerbates drought. About 20% of data centers in the United States already rely on watersheds that are under moderate to high stress due to drought and other factors, according to an article co-authored last year by Arman Shehabi, a research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
However, relatively few companies have been willing to talk about the issue publicly due to the still limited attention it receives. Sustainalytics, which assesses risks related to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, recently said it analyzed 122 companies operating data centers and found that only 16% had disclosed information about their plans to manage water-related risks.
“The reason there is not a lot of transparency, in a nutshell, [is] I think most companies don’t have a good story here,” says Kyle Myers, vice president of CyrusOne, a data center company.
The challenge boils down to a basic tradeoff companies face in trying to keep data centers cool, Myers says. They can consume less water and use more electricity. Or they can use less energy and consume more water.
“Water is super cheap,” says Myers. “So people make the financial decision that it makes sense to consume water.”
In addition to their own cooling needs, data centers rely on power plants that often require a lot of water to run.
The pushback is already emerging
In the United States, there are about 2,600 data centers, many of which are clustered around Dallas, the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles, according to a 2021 report by the US International Trade Commission.
In total, a medium-sized data center consumes about 300,000 gallons of water per day, or almost 1,000 American homes, says Shehabi of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Their direct on-site consumption ranks data centers among the top 10 users of water in the industrial and commercial sectors of the United States.
Water is “front and center [the industry’s] radar, for sure,” says Todd Reeve, executive director of the Business for Water Stewardship, which works with businesses on water-related issues.
Recently, some data center companies have faced opposition from communities and water conservationists. In 2015, the city of Chandler, Arizona, passed to ordinance allow officials to reject applications for new water uses if they are not aligned with the city’s economic development plan. And in 2019, Google agreed to limit their use of groundwater in South Carolina after a two year fight with local groups who had expressed concern about the depletion of aquifers.
Companies “are developing tactics and strategies, in some cases changing their ideas and their plans about where they will operate or where they will build data centers, in large part because of emerging water issues,” Reeve says. Yet many companies don’t talk about their activities, she says, in part because “this is a new and upcoming topic, [and] Our understanding of water stress is evolving very rapidly.”
Companies say they are looking for solutions
The impacts of the worsening drought are being felt throughout the world economy. The rivers that serve as crucial trade routes in Europe are being depleted. Factories in China have closed to save water and electricity. And US industries that rely on water from the Colorado River could see their supplies cut off amid a decades-long drought.
“Which sector is going to receive the water? How [is] Will water be prioritized? So these are the kinds of considerations that I think will be important to consider more and more in the future,” says Kata Molnar, water expert at Sustainalytics.
Among those in the data center industry willing to speak up are some of the world’s largest technology companies.
Google, Microsoft and father of Facebook Goal all have said they will replenish more water than they consume by 2030. Approaches being considered include working with local water utilities, better recycling data center use of water, and cooling methods that consume less water.
“Minimizing our water use, being transparent with our water data, and restoring water in regions with high water stress are key pillars of our water stewardship program,” Meta said in a statement. The company says that most of its data centers reduce water consumption by using outside air for cooling.
In addition to using new technology, some experts have said that companies can reduce their environmental footprint by building data centers in places with lots of water. For now, however, real estate decisions seem to be dictated primarily by the location of clients.
“When we’re sitting down, we look at energy availability and we look at water,” says CyrusOne’s Myers. “But I don’t think we’re anywhere near a world where we’ll just settle in an area that doesn’t have a [business] advantage for data centers”.
As long as that is the case, the industry will have to innovate to get out of a problem that is only getting worse. In the next decade, Myers says, “water is going to be king.”
Business for Water Stewardship’s Reeve insists that companies are preparing accordingly, but behind the scenes in many cases.
“I think there’s more to it than meets the eye,” says Reeve. “There’s a lot of innovation out there that just isn’t fully disclosed or available to the public.”