Western mega-drought intersects with data center water usage

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The West is parched, and more and more day by day. Lake Mead – the nation’s largest reservoir – is approaching “dead pool” levels, meaning it may soon be too low to flow downstream. The entirety of the Four Corners plus California is mired in a mega-drought.

Amid this desiccation, hundreds of data centers across the country are using copious amounts of water to buzz. Dozens are clustering around major metropolitan centers, including those where mandatory or voluntary water restrictions are in place to reduce residential and agricultural use.

The exact amount of water, however, is an open question given that many companies don’t track it, let alone report it. While their energy use and accompanying emissions have grabbed the headlines, data center water use is coming under increasing scrutiny. And as climate change makes water more scarce, pressure could increase on large-scale data centers to disclose their water use and account for scarcity where and how they operate.

The centers consume water both directly (for liquid cooling) and indirectly (for non-renewable electricity generation). According to a 2021 analysis published in Environmental Research Letters, about one-fifth of data center servers in the United States draw water directly from moderately to highly water-stressed watersheds.

“There is a trade-off between energy efficiency and water use” when it comes to how a company cools a data center, said Arman Shehabi, a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and one of the study authors. He said water availability is likely low on the priority list when companies are deciding where to build in relation to the price of electricity.

Drought, and specifically the ongoing mega-drought in the West, is “pretty new on the radar” for these companies, Shehabi said. In recent decades, many data center companies have switched to water rather than electricity to cool servers to reduce energy consumption and emissions, he added. But it is becoming increasingly clear that water is also a potentially scarce resource in many regions.

The mega-drought hitting the West is the worst since at least 800 AD, and climate change is increasing the chances of drier weather to come. Other parts of the world are also increasingly suffering from water stress due to the impact of climate change, as well as people becoming more reliant on groundwater for everything from drinking to farming.

While these other uses tend to be meticulously metered, data center water use is much more opaque, which has already led to local tensions between companies and communities that have been asked to reduce their consumption in times of drought. The Uptime Institute, which advises the IT industry on improving infrastructure performance and efficiency, found in its latest survey of the data center industry that only 51% of respondents measure water use one way or another, even as energy use and emissions tracking become the norm.

“There is very little data available on data center water consumption,” said David Mytton, author of a 2021 NPJ Clean Water article on the subject. Compared to energy use, he continued, “water use is much more hidden, is much more controversial, and in some cases is seen, or has been seen in the past, as a trade secrets”.

Few large-scale data center owners publish their total water usage data, and it’s even harder to find information on specific data centers. Yet there are signs of progress as companies increasingly consider not only the impact of their operations on the climate, but also the other way around.

Microsoft has started sharing its overall consumption in its annual sustainability reports. The 2021 slice shows the company’s appetite for water has grown steadily over the past five years, from around 67.5 million cubic feet in 2017 to just over 158 million cubic feet in 2021. The company has increased the volume of water it replenishes during this period as Well, from zero in 2017 to approximately 71 million cubic feet in 2021. The company aims to increase replenishment to the point where it exceeds its water consumption by 2030 and to reduce data center water waste by 95% by 2024.

Noelle Walsh, vice president of Microsoft’s Cloud Operations and Innovation team, said the company is considering “new waterless cooling solutions, such as two-stage liquid immersion cooling” to help achieve these goals.

Microsoft’s main competitors – AWS and Google – at least track water data for internal use. Google has also made a commitment to water stewardship, saying it will replenish 120% of the water it uses by 2030. However, neither officially responded to protocol questions about the amount of water consumed by its data centers.

And while AWS hasn’t committed to a certain timeline, it has publicly said it’s working to use water more efficiently and use less potable water to cool its data centers. A spokesperson said that while the company is monitoring its own water usage, it hasn’t had to cut spending due to the drought in the West.

Arno van Gennip – the vice president of operations engineering at Equinix, a digital infrastructure company with more than 240 data centers worldwide – said water measurement is still a fairly new phenomenon because , quite simply, water has always been both plentiful and cheap.

However, measuring water consumption is an increasingly crucial part of making data centers more efficient. “If you don’t measure, you can’t manage,” van Gennip said.

While many Equinix centers were already tracking usage, the company started doing so across the board last year. It is analyzing the accuracy of this data before sharing it publicly, van Gennip said.

Water use efficiency has become a metric used to assess efficiency and is calculated by dividing the total number of liters of water used for humidification and cooling by the total annual amount of energy used by the center. While water use efficiency was inspired by the now prevalent energy use efficiency metric, Shehabi said it has yet to catch on. the same way.

“You need to have some sort of measure of efficiency before anyone starts working on improving it. And that’s what happens with power consumption, at least on the cooling side…but we haven’t quite seen that with water,” he said.

But changes could be on the way, at least when it comes to factoring drought into data center plans. Van Gennip said Equinix began looking at the topic in early 2021 and was considering contingency plans for drought and flood impacts.

He predicted that new data centers will consider access to water as resources become more and more valuable. “That’s one of the areas where we have to be prepared,” Van Gennip said.

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